Federal Communications Commission aborts Lifeline Broadband program

Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, no Lifeline Broadband to no Lifeline Broadband. The Federal Communications Commission has killed the Lifeline Broadband plan it spent years developing — before it actually got off the ground.

Now in the interest of accuracy, we should note that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai didn’t actually order an end to the program. Instead, he craftily created some regulatory roadblocks that have the effect of killing the program. According to Gizmodo.com, he ordered “…the agency to eliminate the federal approval process for broadband providers who want to provide service through the LifeLine program, which administers subsidies for phone and internet service.”

Translation?

Last year, the FCC created a streamlined, “one stop shopping” federal approval process that allowed LifeLine Broadband Providers to get subsidies for service in any state with one federal approval. Now, thanks to Pai’s edict, broadband providers will need to jump through approval hoops over and over and over again in each state in which they want to provide service. It’s an expensive, time-consuming process and will probably be enough of a burden to drive away smaller companies that do not have the money, time or stomach for the fight.

As Chairman Pai clearly understood when he issued his edict, there are no state regulatory structures in place to approve LifeLine Broadband service providers, because the FCC told the states last year that all approvals would be handled at the federal level. No approval process means no approvals.

Voila! The Lifeline Broadband program dies because there is no way for it to move forward.

The original LifeLine free government cell phone program pays service providers a subsidy of $9.25 per month for phone service. Clever cell phone companies figured out how offer cell phone service for free by using that subsidy to fund their entire operations. We anticipated that some of the new Lifeline Broadband Providers would also figure out how to provide high speed internet service for free, but now it looks like we’ll never know.

Sounding more like a stand-up comic than a government official, Pai says that eliminating this simplified federal process will “strengthen the Lifeline program and put the implementation of last year’s order on a solid legal footing.”

In reality, forcing regulation back on the states will result in unacceptably long delays for financially-struggling Americans who desperately need high-speed internet access so adults can compete for jobs and so children can compete in school.

As gizmodo.com reports, “Companies that want to provide subsidized voice services will still be able to get designated as LifeLine providers in the states and then sell broadband services, but any company that just wants to provide broadband—like an educational broadband or cable company—is likely out of luck until each state updates their regulatory mechanisms. That’s generally is the kind of thing that takes forever, and it has to happen in all 50 states.”

It doesn’t take a very clear crystal ball to see that Lifeline Broadband Providers will concentrate their efforts on states with large populations and simpler approval processes. Other states (and their low-income residents) will be left with nothing.

It took the FCC three years to bring Lifeline Broadband to life. It took a stroke of Chairman Pai’s pen to kill it.

There’s a country song by Micky and the Motorcars that says, “It’s a long road to nowhere.” After three years of empty promises, one can only say that is a perfect way to describe the sad history of Lifeline Broadband.