Trump-appointed Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Ajit Pai has chosen to reduce participation in an Obama-era expansion of a Reagan-era telecommunications subsidy for low-income Americans. The program, known as “Lifeline,” had become a regular target of right-wing media attacks and conspiracy theories, which labeled it as “Obamaphones” that were distributed in low-income communities to buy votes.
According to a February 3 report from The Washington Post, Pai announced that the commission was reversing a decision made last year to allow additional companies to apply a federal subsidy of $9.25 per month for qualifying households seeking assistance in acquiring internet access. From the Post:
Regulators are telling nine companies they won't be allowed to participate in a federal program meant to help them provide affordable Internet access to low-income consumers — weeks after those companies had been given the green light.
The move, announced Friday by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, reverses a decision by his Democratic predecessor, Tom Wheeler, and undercuts the companies' ability to provide low-cost Internet access to poorer Americans. In a statement, Pai called the initial decisions a form of “midnight regulation.”
The program, known as Lifeline, provides registered households with a $9.25-a-month credit, which can then be used to buy home Internet service. As many as 13 million Americans may be eligible for Lifeline but do not have broadband service at home, the FCC has found.
Until last year, Lifeline recipients could only apply their federal benefit toward landline and mobile voice service. Significant changes to the program under Wheeler let beneficiaries, for the first time, use their credits to purchase broadband. The expansion was opposed by Pai and other Republican officials, who argued that the measure did not do enough to rein in potential costs or to control waste, fraud and abuse. (Democrats claimed that recent reforms to the program had helped cut down on the latter.)
The FCC initially announced the expansion of the subsidy program in March of last year, after then-chairman Tom Wheeler and commissioner Mignon Clyburn successfully argued that “Internet access has become a pre-requisite for full participation in our economy and our society.” For their efforts to expand telecommunications access to low-income communities, the FCC was derided by Fox News, which had already spent years building a cottage industry out of bashing the subsidy program they had dishonestly dubbed “Obamaphones.”
In 2012, Fox News began pushing the conspiracy theory that President Obama was using the Lifeline program to distribute free phones in black communities in exchange for votes based on an out-of-context video of a single overzealous Obama supporter. The so-called “Obamaphones” program became such a frequent target on Fox News that Obama brought it up in May 2015 as an example of how Fox’s fearmongering coverage of poverty stokes animosity toward the poor. During one particularly tone deaf instance, Fox contributor Charles Payne claimed the phone subsidy program was tantamount to “further enslavement of the poor” just weeks after Obama had harangued the network’s over-the-top rhetoric. When the FCC decided to further expand the program in 2016 to keep up with changing technologies -- it was established under Reagan to cover landlines, expanded by President Bush to cover cell phones, and expanded under Obama to cover internet services -- the pump had already been primed for outrage.