On February 23rd Ajit Pai, President Trump's pick to lead the Federal Communications Commission, began what appears to be a long and arduous battle with media reformers and human rights groups. Mr. Pai's first move was to order the cancelation of subsidized internet service for over 17,000 low-income customers. This should come as no surprise since Pai has been very vocal against many of the Obama-era reforms and has more than once spoke out against net neutrality. This goes hand-in-hand with the fact that FCC is now taking action to make media consolidation easier for large corporations.
Lifeline is a federal program that has help provide discount phone service since 1985 and subsidized internet access since March of 2016. This program was developed due to concerns that low-income communities were being excluded from the many opportunities available via the Internet.
Several reform groups responded to the FCC's move with a letter saying, "Lifeline is the only federal program poised to bring broadband to poor families across the US so that they can connect to jobs, complete their homework, and communicate with healthcare providers and emergency services." The group also requested that more companies should be added to the list of providers as opposed to the many that are being removed.
"Finding a job without Internet access is difficult and soon will be near impossible", said Jon Norwood of Broadband Landing Internet Providers. "Before Ajit Pai, or any politician for that matter, decides to do away with subsidized Internet I'd like them to try not using theirs for a week. I'd be surprised if they could go a single day without actually requiring it. Internet access is not an option."
Ajit Pai claims that the program is being audited and the eligibility of the current subsidized providers are being reconsidered to avoid fraud and reduce "waste and abuse". The amount of waste or the extent of the abuse, if any, was not discussed or disclosed.
So one of the big questions is what is Internet access actually worth? While its cost is easily defined its value is not and without that it would be difficult to know if these subsidy programs are actually useful.
Recent Census data has revealed that almost 90% of all homes with incomes at or above $100,000.00 have Internet access. By way of comparison nearly 50% of all homes with an income below $20,000.00 do not have Internet access.
Olivia Wein, an attorney representing the National Consumer Law Center said, "Affordable access to broadband is critical for people to access modern opportunities. We urge the Commission to swiftly implement the March 2016 modernization order so that children can complete their homework at the kitchen table instead of at a fast-food counter."
With Pai's zeal for deregulation it is unlikely the FCC will slow down its efforts to end most or even all government subsidies as they relate to Internet access. For low-income homes it will likely get worse before it gets any better.