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FCC hosts Reagan-off as it enters 21st century

Lifeline program expanded to include internet access amid partisan puffery

FCC commissioners embarked on a Reagan-quoting political bake-off today as the regulator sought to expand its discount telephone service for flat-broke families.

A proposal to extend a $9.25-a-month telephone service called Lifeline to include broadband internet access is now out for public comment. The Lifeline service is aimed at penniless Americans, and is state-subsidized: citizens pay the discount rate, and Uncle Sam makes up the difference on a normal full-price plan with the telco.

Predictably, the expansion to include internet access has fallen into partisan bickering: the three Democrats on the five-person panel of commissioners hailed the change, and triumphantly being in the right thanks to their majority position, while the two Republican commissioners vehemently opposed the plan – seemingly on the principle that they must disagree with whatever the other side comes up with.

And at the center of it stood President Ronald Reagan.

The Lifeline program was set up by the Reagan Administration in 1985 to make phone service more affordable for poor families – a fact that has been mentioned repeatedly by the main proponent of expanding the program to cover broadband: Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel.

Rosenworcel, a Democrat, first publicly outlined her plans to update the program to the modern era to The Reg back in November, while the FCC was embroiled in an increasingly partisan debate over net neutrality.

Not to be out-Reaganed, Commissioner Ajit Pai (a Republican) quoted from God Himself in his dissent of the decision:

Ronald Reagan once said: "Government is like a baby. An alimentary canal with a big appetite at one end and no sense of responsibility at the other." That is an apt analogy for today’s Lifeline program.

While Pai humbly conceded that the Lifeline program was in fact set up by Reagan, he argued that Lifeline was now "vastly different" to how it was back then. Demonstrating the very down-to-earth charisma that was Reagan's hallmark, Pai then spoke in terms that real people would understand:

To equate the two is like saying that The Godfather: Part II is the same as Paul Blart: Mall Cop 2 because both are movie sequels. The reality is this: adjusting for inflation, the Lifeline program is over twenty-three times as large today as it was at the end of the Reagan Administration. And soon, it’ll be even larger.

Pai has a point in that the Lifeline program has grown significantly. From 2008 to 2012, its cost grew from $821 million to over $2.1 billion and the number of people claiming the discount expanded from 6.7 million to 17.2 million.

But as people on the other side of the argument pointed out, that was because the recession pushed many more people into the low-income bracket where they became eligible for the assistance. Hurray!

Boo! Hiss! Cried the other side, who pointed out that even the FCC acknowledged that the program had become abused and enforcement of it had to be improved. Hurray!

Boo! Came the response. We can remember when the biggest criticism of Lifeline was when we couldn't get enough people eligible for it to apply. Hurray!

And so on. National policymaking developed through shouting and finger-pointing and all played out for an audience of FCC-ites.

Everyone loves DC

What is lost in this very Washington DC game is the fact that the FCC has effectively already approved the change to the program and the public comment period is largely a sham: merely presenting an opportunity for companies to figure out how to make as much money as they can from the federal largesse. Or, if you're Google, to make whatever changes most benefit you.

Now that the three Democrats on the FCC have pushed the proposal past their colleagues, they will simply push it past them again when it comes to a final vote. We can expend more triumphalism and teeth-gnashing when that happens.

The fact is that both sides are equally right and wrong.

It does indeed make perfect sense to expand the program to internet access. The point of the program, as everyone is perfectly aware, is to ensure that the poorest of society do not miss out on critical communication developments and so fall further behind. The internet is an obvious extension to that program.

But it also makes sense to question whether the size of the program is appropriate. Is the income-level approach the best solution? Do 17 million people need this level of assistance? Those sorts of questions are likely to go unanswered as there is no desire or real need to reach compromises, especially with the partisan stances of the Commissioners almost guaranteeing that efforts at compromise will prove fruitless: Pai and fellow Republican Commissioner Mike O'Rielly will oppose the expansion regardless of what happens.

Just to add to the general mindless atmosphere, the perfectly logical expansion of the program to cover mobile phones back in 2008 has led to the tortuous phrase "Obamaphone", pulled out at every opportunity to rally mindless opposition – despite the fact that the change happened during the Bush Administration.

Are you eligible?

Of course, absolutely no one who was at the FCC today, or even listening to it, or in fact anyone reading this story will be eligible for the $9.25 a month subsidy (less than the cost of a sandwich and a drink in most big cities).

To be eligible you have to be enrolled in one other assistance programs such as food stamps or public housing assistance or Head Start, or you have to be earning less than 135 per cent of the federal poverty guidelines. Which basically means earning less than $16,000 a year if you live by yourself, or $32,750 for a family of four – which is equivalent to one person earning minimum wage.

According to the FCC, just under 50 per cent of poor households have had to cancel their phone plans at some point due to not having enough money. ®

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