FCC’s Clyburn: Preventing 9 companies from providing subsidized service widens the digital divide

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FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn says that the FCC’s decision to revoke the rights of nine companies to participate in the Lifeline program to provide broadband services to low-income families will make it more challenging for low-income families and students to get access to affordable broadband services.  

“Today, the agency reverses course on providing more competition and consumer choice for Lifeline customers,” Clyburn said in a statement. “Rather than working to close the digital divide, this action widens the gap.”

Clyburn added that by getting rid of “the designations of nine entities to provide Lifeline broadband service, the Bureau has substantially undermined businesses who had begun relying on those designations.”

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Ajit Pai called closing the digital divide a central element of his policy agenda during his initial speech as the new FCC chairman.

“One of the most significant things that I’ve seen during my time here is that there is a digital divide in this country—between those who can use from cutting-edge communications services and those who do not,” Pai said in a speech to his FCC colleagues. “I believe one of our core priorities going forward should be to close that divide—to do what’s necessary to help the private sector build networks, send signals, and distribute information to American consumers, regardless of race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or anything else.” 

However, it’s clear that his recent move to revoke nine companies’ right to participate in the Lifeline program to offer affordable internet access to low-income consumers appears to contradict his stance.  

Pai’s action, which reverses a decision by his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler, comes only weeks after those companies were given the green light to offer services under the Lifeline program.

“These last-minute actions, which did not enjoy the support of the majority of Commissioners at the time they were taken, should not bind us going forward,” Pai said in a prepared statement. “Accordingly, they are being revoked.” 

Providers speak out

One service provider that will be impacted by Pai’s action on Lifeline broadband is Kajeet.

Kajeet, which was given permission to provide service via the Lifeline program, targets students with low-cost 4G LTE wireless broadband services.

The company is focused on providing service to 13,000 school districts and approximately 17 million students who it estimates do not have internet access at home.

“I’m most concerned about the children we serve,” said Daniel Neal, CEO, chairman and founder of Kajeet in a Los Angeles Times article. “We partner with school districts—41 states and the District of Columbia—to provide educational broadband so that poor kids can do their homework.”

Other participants included a minority-owned business and others serving Tribal lands.

A controversial revamp

Revamping the FCC’s Lifeline program to provide broadband services to lower-income families has been embroiled in controversy.

The Lifeline program provides low-income registered households with a $9.25-a-month credit, which can then be used to buy home internet service.

According to FCC data, nearly 13 million Americans who do not have broadband service at home may be eligible for Lifeline. Today, about 900 service providers participate in the Lifeline program.

Last March, the FCC voted along party lines to upgrade the Lifeline program to enable low-income residents to get broadband access.

At that time, the three Democrats on the commission voted to pass the new rules, while the two Republicans expressed concerns about the budget process for Lifeline.

An alternative "moderate, bipartisan deal" developed between Clyburn and fellow Republican Commissioners Pai and Michael O'Rielly failed.