FCC Tells Tribes ‘No Delay’ in Lifeline Changes

The FCC won’t delay implementation of changes to its Lifeline program despite a court challenge brought by Tribes, wireless resellers and others. It’s not clear when the changes would go into effect because they must still be approved by the Office of Management and Budget.

In November of 2017, the FCC voted to tighten restrictions on who could qualify for a $25 a month subsidy of telephone and internet service, including Tribal residents, in the name of curbing waste, fraud and abuse of the Lifeline program. 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 jointly sued the FCC in appeals court and filed a stay of the decision at the D.C. Circuit, pending the outcome of the appeal, which is ongoing.  

The FCC’s Wireline Competition Bureau denied the stay Thursday, saying the petitioners weren’t likely to win their case. In November, the agency limited Tribal Lifeline support to areas with low population densities, eliminating the subsidy for residents on urban Tribal lands. The Commission wanted to direct funds to where they are most needed — rural Tribal lands and facilities-based service providers that maintain their own networks, effectively cutting out resellers.

The petitioners told the court most of the eligible residents on Tribal lands choose re-sellers as their telecom provider, because those companies charge less than carriers that maintain their own networks. However the agency wants more money directed toward “last-mile” facilities, “the most expensive to deploy and the most conspicuously lacking on Tribal lands” and says directing funds to facilities-based providers will accomplish this goal. All Tribal residents would still be eligible to apply for a $9.25 month subsidy.

The Tribes argued they were not properly consulted before the Commission voted on the changes; they claim agency personnel told them what would happen, while Chairman Ajit Pai has said the Tribes were properly consulted. The petitioners argued that without a stay, Easy and Assist will go out of business within a year. The agency said they failed to prove that.

July 10, 2018         

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