The wrong way to bridge the dig­i­tal di­vide

De­ci­sions by the new FCC chair­man un­der­mine pledges of trans­parency and cheaper In­ter­net ac­cess for the poor.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SUNDAY OPINION -

IN HIS first speech in the role, Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion Chair­man Ajit Pai ex­tolled the im­por­tance of bridg­ing the dig­i­tal di­vide be­tween those who can af­ford In­ter­net ac­cess and those who can­not. Days later, though, he opened an­other gap, this time be­tween his words and his ac­tions.

Mr. Pai used his in­au­gu­ral re­marks to ex­press his com­mit­ment to “bring the ben­e­fits of the dig­i­tal age to all Amer­i­cans.” An­other early pledge to pub­lish pend­ing FCC reg­u­la­tions in a pi­lot pro­gram geared to­ward greater trans­parency was equally en­cour­ag­ing. But in a sin­gle Fri­day af­ter­noon, the FCC took steps to un­der­mine both prom­ises: It re­moved nine com­pa­nies from the ros­ter of its Life­line pro­gram for low-in­come broad­band con­sumers, and it re­tracted four re­ports — two di­rectly re­lated to the dig­i­tal di­vide — from its record. The FCC of­fered no im­me­di­ate ex­pla­na­tion for ei­ther change.

The FCC launched Life­line in 1985 to make phone ser­vice more af­ford­able for low-in­come Amer­i­cans by al­low­ing them to pur­chase dis­counted ser­vices from par­tic­i­pat­ing car­ri­ers. In 2016, the FCC shifted its fo­cus to broad­band ac­cess, and as part of that ef­fort it be­gan grant­ing com­pa­nies the right to en­roll in the pro­gram na­tion­ally. This move stitched up holes in a state-by-state patch­work of par­tic­i­pants to make the mar­ket ev­ery­where more com­pet­i­tive. The nine com­pa­nies booted from Life­line this month owed their sta­tus to the change.

Mr. Pai ar­gues that the Life­line des­ig­na­tions were an Obama ad­min­is­tra­tion rush job and that pulling them back af­fected only a small per­cent­age of the more than 900 com­pa­nies in the pro­gram. An FCC spokesman also noted that the re­tracted re­ports re­main in the for­mer FCC chair­man’s on­line ar­chive, although they now “have no le­gal or other ef­fect or mean­ing.”

That’s all true. But crit­ics are right to worry that Mr. Pai’s de­ci­sions may be the first steps in crip­pling Life­line. He has long ex­pressed skep­ti­cism of the pro­gram, cit­ing con­cerns about fraud, although in a July 2016 con­gres­sional hear­ing on the sub­ject he ad­mit­ted he had yet to un­cover any. Al­ready, Mr. Pai has called for a hold on lit­i­ga­tion in a court case chal­leng­ing the FCC’s author­ity to ap­prove com­pa­nies for na­tional Life­line par­tic­i­pa­tion, and it is un­clear whether the agency will ever re­sume its de­fense in the case.

The re­vo­ca­tion of the re­ports — one of the four fo­cused on ex­pand­ing WiFi net­works in pri­mary and sec­ondary schools and li­braries, and an­other on im­prov­ing the na­tion’s dig­i­tal in­fra­struc­ture — only lends cre­dence to con­cerns about Mr. Pai’s stated com­mit­ment to clos­ing the dig­i­tal di­vide. It cer­tainly throws cold wa­ter on his claims to trans­parency.

And these aren’t the only rea­sons to fear the FCC is headed in a dis­turb­ing di­rec­tion. Mr. Pai has also ex­pressed ea­ger­ness to roll back other Obama-era changes to the agency that make for a freer and fairer In­ter­net. That’s one area where we can hope that, once again, he does not mean what he says.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.