Republicans Attack FCC Plan to Pay for Internet Access for the Poor

The commission hoped to win GOP support for its plan to overhaul the “Obamaphone” program. But it’s not going well.

National Journal
May 28, 2015, 11:26 a.m.

Just months after en­act­ing fiercely con­tro­ver­sial net neut­ral­ity rules, the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is wad­ing in­to a new polit­ic­al battle by un­veil­ing a plan to sub­sid­ize In­ter­net ac­cess for mil­lions of poor Amer­ic­ans.

House and Sen­ate Re­pub­lic­ans blas­ted the plan Thursday, warn­ing that it would waste more fed­er­al money. The plan from FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er would ex­pand the agency’s Life­line pro­gram, de­ris­ively re­ferred to as the “Obama­phone” pro­gram by Re­pub­lic­ans (des­pite the fact that it was cre­ated dur­ing the Re­agan ad­min­is­tra­tion).

Re­pub­lic­ans ar­gue that the $1.7 bil­lion pro­gram, which cur­rently only sub­sid­izes phone ser­vice, has already been plagued by fraud and has been grow­ing out of con­trol.

“Why the FCC wants to ex­pand this pro­gram be­fore ad­dress­ing the reg­u­lar re­ports of on­go­ing fraud is bey­ond me,” said Sen. Dav­id Vit­ter, a Louisi­ana Re­pub­lic­an and long­time crit­ic of the pro­gram. “The FCC has failed to man­age Life­line ef­fi­ciently in its cur­rent form, and I can­not sup­port any ex­pan­sion of a pro­gram that has so few safe­guards in place to pro­tect the le­git­im­acy of the pro­gram and the Amer­ic­an tax­pay­ers who pay in­to it.”

FCC of­fi­cials hoped that their plan might be able to win Re­pub­lic­an sup­port. While their plan would al­low poor con­sumers to use Life­line money to­wards their In­ter­net bills, it wouldn’t ne­ces­sar­ily in­crease the over­all size of the pro­gram, which is fun­ded through fees on all phone bills.

In fact, the FCC plans to con­sider wheth­er to cap the size of the pro­gram for the first time, something Re­pub­lic­an have been push­ing for years. So con­sumers would be al­lowed to spend their $9.25 monthly sub­sidy on voice, data, or home In­ter­net ac­cess, but the size of that sub­sidy might not ac­tu­ally in­crease un­der the plan. That would keep con­sumers from hav­ing to pay high­er gov­ern­ment fees on their phone bills.

The agency is also pro­pos­ing meas­ures to crack down on fraud and ab­use. For ex­ample, phone com­pan­ies, which get more fund­ing for en­rolling more people, would no longer be in charge of veri­fy­ing that someone is eli­gible for the pro­gram.

On a con­fer­ence call with re­port­ers Thursday, FCC of­fi­cials said they were op­tim­ist­ic that by in­cor­por­at­ing Re­pub­lic­an ideas de­signed to save fed­er­al money, they could get un­an­im­ous sup­port for their plan.

Aides to the two Re­pub­lic­an com­mis­sion­ers, Ajit Pai and Mi­chael O’Ri­elly, were still re­view­ing the plan Thursday and did not com­ment.

But Re­pub­lic­ans on Cap­it­ol Hill aren’t wait­ing to launch their at­tack.

“Waste, fraud, ab­use, and a per­vas­ive lack of ac­count­ab­il­ity have un­der­mined the cred­ib­il­ity of the Life­line pro­gram,” Sen­ate Com­merce Com­mit­tee Chair­man John Thune, a South Dakota Re­pub­lic­an, said in a state­ment. “Amer­ic­ans de­serve bet­ter than a pro­gram fall­ing woe­fully short of its mis­sion.”

Rep. Fred Up­ton, the chair­man of the House En­ergy and Com­merce Com­mit­tee, and Greg Walden, the chair­man of the pan­el’s Com­mu­nic­a­tions and Tech­no­logy Sub­com­mit­tee, ac­know­ledged that In­ter­net ac­cess “cre­ates count­less op­por­tun­it­ies for in­di­vidu­als and small busi­nesses and is a wel­come gen­er­at­or of eco­nom­ic growth and jobs” and said they would sup­port re­form­ing FCC pro­grams to “meet the com­mu­nic­a­tions and tech­no­logy en­vir­on­ment of the 21st cen­tury.”

But, they said, “this pro­pos­al misses the mark on the re­forms we need.”

“Simply ex­pand­ing the pro­gram without en­sur­ing its ef­fect­ive­ness or longev­ity is the wrong ap­proach if we’re go­ing to do right by those who pay for the pro­gram, and those who de­pend on it,” the law­makers said.

Wheel­er de­fen­ded his plan in a blog post Thursday, ar­guing that help­ing people get ac­cess to high-speed In­ter­net is crit­ic­al for en­sur­ing that people can ap­ply for jobs, get health­care, and do school­work. “Our na­tion’s en­dur­ing prom­ise is op­por­tun­ity for all, and help­ing fin­an­cially strug­gling Amer­ic­ans ac­cess ba­sic com­mu­nic­a­tions em­powers in­di­vidu­als to pur­sue new op­por­tun­it­ies and build bet­ter lives,” he wrote.

The five-mem­ber com­mis­sion is sched­uled to vote on wheth­er to move for­ward with the pro­pos­al June 18. The agency then would ac­cept pub­lic com­ments for sev­er­al months be­fore mak­ing a fi­nal rul­ing.

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