Thursday, July 19, 2018

U.S. senators question FCC proposal to cut phone, internet service subsidy

By on April 5, 2018

SAN JUAN – A dozen U.S. senators called on Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai to drop a new rule that would limit phone and internet access for millions of low-income citizens.

In a letter addressed to Pai, Sens. Kamala Harris (D-CA), Bernie Sanders (I-VT), Elizabeth Warren (D-MA), Richard Blumenthal (D-CT), Jeff Merkley (D-OR) and other Democratic senators say that Lifeline serves more than 12 million Americans and that at least 6.5 million have internet access through the program.

Lifeline is a 33-year-old bipartisan program that grants a monthly household subsidy of $9.25 for phone and broadband service. The program is paid for through special service fees on phone bills.

FCC chairman proposes $954 million plan for Puerto Rico, USVI

The FCC chairman’s proposed rule would cut service to about 70 percent, or 8 million households, of the programs’ recipients. The senators argue that is is “essential for millions of Americans who rely on subsidized internet access to find jobs, schedule doctor’s appointments, complete their school assignments, interface with the government, and remain connected in a digital economy.”

They told Pai, “It is your obligation to the American public, as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to improve the Lifeline program and ensure that more Americans can afford access, and have means of access, to broadband and phone service,” the Senators wrote.

The letter includes a series of questions they want answers to before the commission holds a final vote on the proposal, such as “how does your proposal help to increase the already terrible connectivity situation in Puerto Rico after its devastation by recent hurricanes [Irma and Maria]?”

Puerto Rico Economic Development Secretary Manuel Laboy told Newsweek that the “action would disrupt the positive momentum we’re already seeing in the strengthening of Puerto Rico’s economy and the transformation of the island.”

According to a release last month by the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved, which represents organizations focused on addressing health disparities, Lifeline is of the few tools available to communicate with underserved communities in the aftermath of a disaster.

The nonprofit organization says that about 17 percent of Puerto Rico’s population, or about 550,000 people, use the program, which it considers “an essential part of the emergency communication model that is now emerging” to “conduct emergency medical response and coordinate care in coordination with disaster response operations across Puerto Rico.”

The lawmakers also questioned the financial reasons for cutting the program, arguing “it is unclear why the FCC would spend billions of dollars to expand access to broadband while at the same time make Lifeline less accessible to those who need it most.”

Puerto Rico power company’s integrated resource plan a moving target

“The last thing we should be doing is rolling back the policies that have brought connectivity to millions of Americans,” the letter continues. “Instead of cutting the program, we should ensure Lifeline reaches more Americans in need of access to communication services.”

Puerto Rico residents are eligible for Lifeline Assistance if they receive benefits from programs like Medicaid, Housing’s Section 8, Supplemental Security Income, Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, and Veterans Pension and Survivor’s Benefit.

The program is also available for Puerto Ricans whose household income is at or less than 135 percent of the Federal Poverty Guidelines. According to Free Government Cell Phones, the annual household income for one person must be less than $16,000 to be eligible for the program, and rises $5,832 for each additional household member.

U.S. senators call for investigation into Puerto Rico power restoration

The full text of the letter follows below:

Dear Chairman Pai,

We write to express our opposition to your proposal to drastically cut the critical Lifeline program that has successfully provided phone and internet services to individuals who might otherwise not be able to access them. We ask that you reconsider your plan to deprive critical Lifeline support from 8 million otherwise eligible Americans.

It is your obligation to the American public, as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, to improve the Lifeline program and ensure that more Americans can afford access, and have means of access, to broadband and phone service. Your proposal accomplishes the exact opposite – it takes resources out of the hands of the most vulnerable Americans.

The Lifeline Program is essential for millions of Americans who rely on subsidized internet access to find jobs, schedule doctor’s appointments, complete their school assignments, interface with the government, and remain connected in a digital economy. The program helps Americans—including disproportionate numbers of families with children, veterans and people of color—survive.

The majority of Lifeline’s recipients, at least 6.5 million Americans, use the program to receive internet service. From an economic standpoint, it is unclear why the FCC would spend billions of dollars to expand access to broadband while at the same time make Lifeline less accessible to those who need it most. Your proposal impacts over 70 percent of current Lifeline-recipient households by eliminating their wireless providers from the program, leaving less affordable and fewer Lifeline options, while making it more difficult for the companies trying to serve Lifeline customers. Instead of cutting the program, we should ensure Lifeline reaches more Americans in need of access to communication services.

The last thing we should be doing is rolling back the policies that have brought connectivity to millions of Americans. We are requesting responses to the following, before the Commission conducts a vote on the future of Lifeline:

The December 1, 2017, Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) provides no evidence, analysis, or data to support its assumption that the FCC’s proposed changes to Lifeline will spur facilities-based broadband deployment and additional affordable services for low-income families. Provide any specific data, analysis, academic studies, economic reports, etc. that you relied on to support this assumption. Explain why the NPRM included no evidence or data to support this assumption.

  1.  What is the FCC’s plan for the millions of Americans that would lose service due to your actions to cut the Lifeline program?
  2.  How many Americans in total, broken down by state, would lose their current service provider under your proposal? How many Americans would be left without any provider offering Lifeline service?
  3.  How will you ensure the integrity of the comment record is intact, and that it will be taken into your decision-making process?
  4.  How does your proposal help to increase the already terrible connectivity situation in Puerto Rico after its devastation by recent hurricanes?
  5.  How does your proposal ensure connectivity/affect availability of Lifeline for the following groups (please provide current Lifeline participation statistics for each, where available):
    1. Tribal members
    2. Rural Americans
    3. Low-income Americans
    4. Veterans
    5. Elderly populations

Thank you for your consideration and we look forward to your timely response.

 

image_print

You must be logged in to post a comment Login

-->