The FCC Friday said nine service providers would not be able to collect funding from the commission’s Lifeline program, which pays part of the costs of communications services for qualified low-income users – at least for now and possibly not ever. According to FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, the move was made after the nine providers had previously been given the go-ahead to participate in the program. In a statement, Clyburn said the FCC Lifeline reversal would widen the digital divide.
“By eliminating the designations of nine entities to provide Lifeline broadband service, the [FCC] has substantially undermined businesses who had begun relying on those designations,” Clyburn said. She noted that among the nine providers were a minority-owned business, a provider enabling students to complete their homework online and others serving tribal lands.
The nine entities also include SDS Media Inc., provider of the FreedomPop free mobile data, voice, and text service, as well as premium offerings that increase the customer’s monthly data allotment.
The Lifeline program pays up to $9.25 per qualified low-income household toward the cost of broadband and/or voice service. The minimum data allotment for the program is 150 gigabytes per month. FreedomPop’s free plan offers only 200 megabytes per month, according to the company website.
FCC Lifeline Reversal
A review of the FCC Lifeline reversal order adopted Friday shows that the revocation of Lifeline broadband provider designation may or may not be permanent. The order states that previous decisions made under the Wheeler administration in December and January to designate the nine carriers as Lifeline broadband providers was conditional. Petitions now will be considered pending and have not been granted streamlined treatment, the order states.
In addition to FreedomPop, other entities impacted by Friday’s order include SpotOn Networks LLC, Boomerang Wireless LLC, KonaTel Inc., Applied Research Designs Inc., Kajeet Inc., Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico LLC, Northland Cable Television Inc. and Wabash Independent Networks.
The order states that the decision to revoke the status for some of the providers was made in response to a petition from the National Tribal Telecommunications Association that argued that there was no evidence that some of the providers had complied with obligations to provide copies of their petitions to affected tribal authorities.
The order also argues that both the December and January decisions erred in finding that expanding the number of designated Lifeline providers will combat waste, fraud and abuse by providers receiving Lifeline reimbursements “absent further steps or time for the agency to consider measures designed to ensure those providers will comply with the Lifeline program rules.”
Clyburn said she asked that the full commission be allowed to review the order but that her request was “flatly denied.” She “implored” her fellow commissioners – who currently include only FCC Chairman Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly – to expedite the requests for Lifeline broadband provider designation.
The order was one of various actions taken by the FCC Friday, including decisions involving competition, consumer protection, cybersecurity and other core issues, Clyburn noted. She added that she did not have sufficient opportunity to weigh in on the decisions.
The FCC’s Lifeline actions from Friday drew harsh responses from a range of stakeholders. For example, the Benton Foundation issued a press release with comments from one of its directors and from nine other organizations criticizing the decision.
“The unexpected revocations will not only limit choices for Lifeline customers, but also have a chilling effect on participation of other potential broadband providers of Lifeline service,” said Amina Fazlullah, director of policy at the Benton Foundation.
Organizations criticizing the decision in the press release included the Communications Workers of America, the Free Press, the NAACP, the National Consumer Law Center and others.