Arguing that recent FCC rules that empower the agency to determine carrier eligibility to participate in the Universal Service Fund (USF) Lifeline program “[snatch] this legal responsibility from the states,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announced Wednesday that the FCC will not reinstate Lifeline service authorizations that had been issued to (but later revoked from) from nine broadband service entities and that the agency would soon take steps to eliminate the Lifeline eligibility designation process from the FCC’s rules.
Lifeline was established by the FCC in 1985 to provide eligible low income households with a monthly subsidy to offset the cost of fixed telephone, and later, wireless voice services. By a 3-2 vote from which Pai and his Republican colleague, FCC Commissioner Michael O’Rielly, dissented, the FCC approved reforms to the Universal Service Fund (USF) Lifeline program last year that extended Lifeline support to fixed and wireless broadband but that also shifted primary responsibility for determining Lifeline eligibility from the states to the FCC. Shortly after assuming the FCC’s chairmanship in January, Pai directed the FCC’s bureau chiefs to set aside certain “midnight” actions that were undertaken by the FCC during the presidential transition period late in the tenure of former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler. Included among these actions was the designation of nine broadband service providers as Lifeline eligible entities.
As he stressed that “broadband will remain in the Lifeline program” and that the FCC “will continue to look for ways to make the program work even better,” Pai proclaimed that “Congress gave state governments, not the FCC, the primary responsibility for approving which companies can participate in the Lifeline program” pursuant to Section 214 of the 1934 Communications Act. Maintaining that state utility commissions “are key to policing against fraud and harmonizing federal and state initiatives that will help us close the digital divide,” Pai maintained that, “by letting states take the lead on certification as envisioned by Congress, we will strengthen the Lifeline program and put the implementation of last year’s order on a solid legal footing.” In so doing, Pai also confirmed that the FCC will drop its opposition to pending legal challenges that have been filed by twelve states against the Lifeline order, adding that the General Counsel of the FCC has been directed “to ask the DC Circuit to send this case back to the FCC for further consideration.”