FCC concedes broadband lifeline decisions to state regulators

30 March 2017 by Steve Blum
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Let the professionals do it.

Companies that want to offer subsidised broadband service to low income households will have to seek approval from state regulators, and not the Federal Communications Commission. That will be the result of a decision made public yesterday by FCC chair Ajit Pai. In effect, he’s conceding an appeals court challenge to the broadband lifeline program approved by the FCC in 2016 and, instead, will have the current commission – a very different beast from a year ago – rework it.

The key issue is whether the FCC or individual states will determine whether a given company can participate in the program. In the past, it’s been up to state regulators, like the California Public Utilities Commission, to make those decisions, but the FCC’s order said it would run the certification process on a national basis, but twelve states – California not among them – challenged that preemption in a federal appeals court. As the legal process continued, the FCC started taking applications from would-be lifeline providers, and approved nine in the final weeks of the Obama administration. Those were quickly rescinded once Pai took over chairman, and now he’s telling FCC staff to toss out the 36 applications still pending (h/t to Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica for the pointer).

There is a lot wrong with the FCC lifeline program as originally designed, with low standards for broadband service overall and abysmal minimums for service provided over mobile networks at the top of the list. It was controversial at the time, with a last minute attempt at bipartisan compromise between one democrat – Mignon Clyburn – and the two republicans – Pai and Michael O’Rielly – blown away by then-chair Tom Wheeler’s Beltway politicking. All three are still on the commission – for now, they are the commission – so it will be interesting to see if they can regain their former collegiality, at least in regards lifeline service.