Appeals Court Stays Tribal Lifeline Changes

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UPDATE A D.C. federal appeals court blocked the FCC from making changes to its Lifeline broadband subsidy program that would have effectively eliminated benefits for many Native Americans living on Tribal lands while an appeal remains pending.

The FCC voted 3-2 last November to tighten qualifications for a $25 a month subsidy of telephone and internet service, to eliminate waste, fraud and abuse. The changes would have limited the type of qualified carriers serving tribal areas to “facilities-based” providers that maintain their own networks; it would have effectively cut out resellers. The FCC also wanted to direct funds to where they are most needed, like “last-mile” facilities. Tribal residents would still be eligible to apply for a $9.25 a month subsidy, the agency said at the time.

The Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, Oceti Sakowin Tribal Utility Authority, Assist Wireless, LLC, Boomerang Wireless, LLC, Easy Telephone Services Company and the National Lifeline Association sued the FCC. They told the court most of the eligible residents on Tribal lands choose resellers as their telecom provider, because those companies charge less than carriers that maintain their own networks, Inside Towers reported.  

The three-judge panel wrote the petitioners, “have demonstrated a likelihood of success on the merits of their arguments that the facilities-based and rural areas limitations contained in the Order are arbitrary and capricious.” Petitioners told the court the agency failed to account for a lack of alternative carriers for tribal customers. The judges agreed, writing Friday: “petitioners credibly assert that providers have generally declined to offer Lifeline service in many tribal regions in the nearly two decades since the implementation of the Tribal Lifeline program, and furthermore that the Order’s new eligibility requirements do not attract providers to expand into those previously-ignored regions.”

“Residents of Tribal lands, like many low-income consumers, rely on Lifeline service from wireless resellers, who are the primary, and sometimes only, providers of Lifeline service,” stated Gene DeJordy, attorney for the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe. He called the decision a victory.

An FCC spokesperson told The Hill, the agency disagreed with the decision, saying in a statement the ruling means: “American taxpayers will be required to continue to pay for $34.25 a month in subsidies for Lifeline consumers in Tulsa, Oklahoma while those in rural Appalachia and Detroit only receive $9.25 a month. This makes no sense, and we will continue to fight to eliminate the waste, fraud, and abuse that has too long plagued this vital program.”     

August 14, 2018     

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