Guest Commentary

Chairman Pai, don’t cut off the Lifeline to your home state

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai File photo/AP

One of the most influential Kansas-raised leaders today, Ajit Pai chairs the Federal Communications Commission and champions causes that he says benefit Americans living in rural areas. Pai, who grew up in Parsons, Kan., frequently mentions his small-town upbringing to win acceptance for his often controversial policy views.

It’s good to see that Pai has not forgotten about his Kansas roots. But what about the people of Kansas? The unfortunate fact is that the FCC chairman’s proposal to change the rules of the federal Lifeline program threatens the very people he claims to support, right here in Kansas.

Appointed to the FCC for a five-year term by President Barack Obama in 2012, Pai was elevated to chairman by President Donald Trump in January 2017. Pai leads an independent federal agency, overseen by Congress, that is the primary authority for regulating communications to serve the public interest.

Established in 1985 under the Reagan administration, the Lifeline program offers qualifying low-income Americans access to cellphone and broadband service to stay connected to their jobs, families, health care providers and emergency services. For eligible Americans, including over a million veterans, the program provides a true lifeline that can help with putting food on the table, getting medical care or even combating domestic violence.

But a new proposal spearheaded by Pai aims to eliminate the ability of certain carriers to provide Lifeline services, disproportionately affecting rural areas. Wireless resellers, which purchase wholesale network capacity from the larger service providers, would be excluded under the new plan from providing service to Lifeline customers. These reseller carriers currently provide Lifeline service for about seven out of 10 Lifeline participants. As a result, 7 million people stand to lose their phone service if the FCC’s proposed rules are adopted.

Kansas would be hit hard by the harsh new Lifeline rules. It is estimated that about 70 percent of the state’s 45,131 Lifeline households would lose service, including veterans and seniors. While Pai has been on media tours in recent months touting how the FCC is closing the “digital divide,” the truth is that his Lifeline plan would make things much worse for low-income Kansas households.

Pai justifies his Lifeline curbs by arguing they are needed to deal with “waste, fraud and abuse” and to rein in “unscrupulous actors.” But what we would like to know is this: Have there been any problems with Lifeline in Kansas? Have seniors and veterans in Kansas been ripping off the program willy-nilly? We can’t find any evidence of such abuses in our state.

And so we have to ask: Why should 32,000 low-income households in the chairman’s adopted home state have to suffer? Why should veterans and seniors have their phone service or broadband cut off? This seems like an unfair and disproportionate response that hurts Kansas and rural areas across America unjustly.

No one wants to see waste, fraud and abuse in any federal program. Everything in Washington should run as efficiently as possible while still getting the job done.

What we worry about is that Pai is taking advantage of taxpayer concerns about waste, fraud and abuse as cover to gut a program that he doesn’t like. And that concern will hit home in a very real way for low-income households in Kansas if Pai gets his way.

Our message to the FCC chairman is simple: If there’s a problem with the Lifeline program in Kansas, let’s fix it.

But if, as we suspect, Lifeline abuses are not present in Kansas and the program is a true lifeline for millions of Americans, let’s not declare war on Kansas veterans and seniors by cutting off their cell phones and broadband service.

As a son of Kansas, Pai is in a position to do a lot of good for his adopted home state. If not, let’s hope he at least chooses to do no harm.

Barbara Lach is vice president of the board of Connecting For Good, a Kansas City-based 501(c)(3) nonprofit working to provide computer skills and internet access to low-income communities.