The decision by the new head of the Federal Communications Commission to reverse course on a program aimed at narrowing the nation’s digital divide has drawn sharp criticism from advocates working to close the so-called “homework gap” and even from within the FCC.
Ajit Pai, who became chairman of the regulatory agency last month after President Donald Trump took office, has blocked nine companies from providing internet access to low-income families and communities through the FCC’s Lifeline program. He overturned a decision by his predecessor, Tom Wheeler, who was lauded by advocacy groups for trying to reduce the number of U.S. households that still don’t have affordable access to high-speed internet service.
The FCC said the decision to reverse the approvals was intended to “promote program integrity by providing the [FCC] with additional time to consider measures that might be necessary to prevent further waste, fraud, and abuse in the Lifeline program.”
Pai’s decision, however, raised immediate concerns from organizations, including the Consortium for School Networking, that have worked to promote digital equity, and dealt a blow to nine service providers. The companies include Kajeet, which had begun work building out broadband services to underserved areas based on the Lifeline program.
In a separate decision, Pai rescinded a recently published E-rate progress report, raising additional questions about his position in connection with the FCC’s widely-used fund for helping schools and libraries expand internet access for their communities.
“On behalf of the more than 800 school districts and the 13 million students served by CoSN, we are deeply concerned with this action and its impact on low-income students,” according to a CoSN statement about the Lifeline decision obtained by EdScoop.
“Without this access, many students across America will fall behind their peers and not be able to take full advantage of the learning opportunities that are critical to 21st century success. All students in America, regardless of their economic status, deserve more – not less – access to digital learning.”
Tracy Weeks, the executive director of the State Educational Technology Directors Association, also weighed in on the surprise move.
“If we are to close the digital divide a collaboration effort between, federal, state, and local governments along with the private sector is essential,” she said. “SETDA is strongly urges the FCC to reconsider these recent actions and to move forward in continuing to provide leadership in connecting students with access to the infrastructure tools they need for learning.”
Many students in poor, rural areas do not have access to Wi-Fi at home, and often cannot complete their homework on digital devices. That’s where companies like Kajeet would have stepped in – it was one of several approved just weeks ago to offer the service.
Pai’s decision also drew objections from fellow FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat.
“By eliminating the designations of nine entities to provide Lifeline broadband service, the Bureau has substantially undermined businesses who had begun relying on those designations. These providers include a minority-owned business, a provider enabling students to complete their homework online, and others serving Tribal lands,” said Clyburn in a statement released by the FCC.
Officials for Kajeet were not available to comment, but Kajeet founder Daniel Neal said in a Washington Post report, “I’m most concerned about the children we serve. We partner with school districts — 41 states and the District of Columbia — to provide educational broadband so that poor kids can do their homework.” The FCC did not respond to calls to identify the other eight companies affected.
Originally created to provide qualifying low-income consumers with discounts on their phone service, the Lifeline program was expanded last March to include broadband service. Lifeline provides households with a monthly credit of $9.25, which can be used to buy home internet service. The FCC estimated as many as 13 million Americans might benefit from the program who don’t have broadband service at home.
While Pai signaled in his first address to FCC staff that reducing the digital divide would be one of his top issues, he knocked recent provisions in the Lifeline program as a “midnight regulation.”
“These last-minute actions, which did not enjoy the support of the majority of commissioners at the time they were taken, should not bind us going forward,” he said in a statement released by the FCC.
Less clear was Pai’s decision to rescind a report that described the progress of the FCC’s E-rate program, which has disappeared from the FCC’s website.
The Education and Libraries Networks Coalition (EdLiNC) voiced its concern about the move. The coalition, made up of organizations representing school superintendents, principals, teachers, libraries and other education groups, urged the chairman to reconsider the action in a statement released Wednesday, noting “E-rate has done more to connect America’s public and private schools and public libraries in the past 20 years than any other state or federal program.”
In a separate announcement on Monday, Pai pledged to circulate all rules or proposed rules scheduled for public votes to fellow commissioners before discussing them publicly, which he said was a departure from Wheeler’s method.
Pai said in a statement that Wheeler “often briefed the press or published a blog about matters to be voted upon at the FCC’s monthly meetings before sharing those matters with commissioners,” which he found “inappropriate and disrespectful of other commissioners.”
Wyatt Kash contributed to this report.