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After Buffalo, Media and Tech Can’t Look Away Any Longer

This tragedy should be a catalyst to a fundamental reckoning.
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WASHINGTON — On Thursday, nearly 40 civil rights, social justice, labor and digital inclusion groups sent a letter to the Federal Communications Commission urging the agency to reverse its decision earlier this month that undermined the Lifeline Program.

Under previous FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, the agency expanded and modernized Lifeline to help make high-speed internet access more affordable to people in low-income communities around the country. New FCC Chairman Ajit Pai stymied program implementation in one of a number of decisions his FCC bureaus released on Feb. 3.

Under Pai, the FCC revoked Lifeline broadband-provider status previously granted to nine internet service providers. The decision made it more difficult —  if not impossible — for tens of thousands of low-income families and students to get online. He took away the connections of 17,500 customers that one of these providers was already serving, and stalled imminent service from other eight.  

“Lifeline … is the only federal program poised to bring broadband to poor families across the U.S. so that they can connect to jobs, complete their homework, and communicate with healthcare providers and emergency services,” reads the groups’ letter to the FCC. “[W]e respectfully request that the Commission reject any further efforts to undermine Lifeline, swiftly implement the March 2016 Lifeline modernization order, and overturn the Wireline Competition Bureau’s Order on Reconsideration that rescinded Lifeline Broadband Provider designations for nine carriers prepared to offer Lifeline broadband services.”

Groups signing the letter include the AFL-CIO, the American Library Association, the Center for Media Justice, the Center for Rural Strategies, Color Of Change, Common Cause, Communications Workers of America, Free Press, Generation Justice, Media Mobilizing Project, the NAACP, the National Hispanic Media Coalition, Native Public Media, New America's Open Technology Institute and the United Church of Christ, Office of Communication Inc., among others.

The full letter:  

“As a country, we must move forcefully to eradicate the internet-affordability gap and ensure equal access to education for all children,” said Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González. “Lifeline is the only federal program designed to directly address the high cost of internet services. If Chairman Pai means what he says about wanting to bridge the digital divide, he must focus on making access more affordable and drop his harmful efforts to undermine this program. Rather than revoking the Lifeline designation for broadband providers, the agency should push more resources into modernizing and expanding the program.”

“In recent years, the FCC has worked to modernize its Universal Service programs to increase access for all to high-speed broadband,” said American Library Association President Julie B. Todaro. “This is the right direction, and we should be building on these successes, not rolling them back by undermining the Lifeline program.”

“Lifeline helps empower members of marginalized communities that have been on the wrong side of the digital divide for far too long,” said National Hispanic Media Coalition Director of Policy & Legal Affairs Carmen Scurato. “It is a unique federal program that addresses the main reason that so many families fall offline and remain disconnected: cost. Chairman Pai should demonstrate his commitment to bridging the digital divide by supporting the swift implementation of the Lifeline Modernization Order and stopping any future action to further undermine the effectiveness of the program.”

”Affordable access to broadband is critical for people to access modern opportunities,” said ​Olivia Wein, an attorney with the National Consumer Law Center. “We urge the Commission to swiftly implement the March 2016 modernization order so that children can complete their homework at the kitchen table instead of at a fast-food counter.”

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