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The Fate of Net Neutrality Hinges on the House

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WASHINGTON — In testimony before the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation, Free Press Deputy Director and Senior Counsel Jessica J. González will urge members of Congress to protect the Federal Communications Commission’s Lifeline program while explaining that Lifeline reforms the agency approved in a 2016 vote address problems identified in a GAO report.

Lifeline, an FCC universal service program that provides a modest subsidy so that poor people can access telephone and internet services, was modernized by the Obama FCC to make the program more efficient. González will testify that the 2016 modernization is critical for poor families and people of color, who are often stranded on the wrong side of the digital divide.

The GAO report to be discussed during the hearing is based on underlying data gathered from 2012 to 2014, prior to implementation of many of the FCC's 2012 reforms and nearly all of its 2016 reforms to prevent waste, fraud and abuse.

González will also recount the experiences of many Lifeline users who have spoken to her about the vital importance of having an affordable broadband connection. She will condemn recent efforts by President Trump’s FCC chairman, Ajit Pai, to restrict the number of new Lifeline providers offering broadband, undermining the program before the 2016 reforms can even be fully implemented. 

In testimony submitted in advance of the 10 a.m. Wednesday hearing, González wrote:

“I have long been troubled by the tenor of the Lifeline debate: There’s a tendency to wage war on the poor, to demonize and make assumptions about Lifeline recipients. I cannot sit here today, especially in this moment of rising white supremacy around the country and in the Oval Office, without directly confronting that these assumptions often have racist undertones.

“Staunch opponents of any program that helps the poor have exploited [the GAO] report to escalate their attacks on Lifeline and malign users. These critics will continue to disdain the tremendous opportunities Lifeline has provided for millions of people — and the millions more whose lives can improve with the Commission’s newly minted broadband Lifeline offerings — so long as it serves their agenda.”

In addition, González’s written testimony highlights Lifeline’s essential role in aiding the rescue and rehabilitation of people stranded by Hurricane Harvey in and around Houston:

“I can’t help but wonder how many Houstonians have used their Lifeline connections to call for help and access vital emergency information as the city faced Hurricane Harvey and continues its recovery,” she wrote. “Indeed, the evidence is clear: Poor people are disproportionately impacted by natural disasters. We must protect Lifeline — the primary federal program that addresses the communications-affordability gap faced by tens of millions of people — to ensure that everyone has access to communications and emergency services in times like these. 

“Connecting people to communications services is an important government priority, and we should not take Lifeline funds away from their intended purpose and intended beneficiaries. As I read stories about how people stranded in Houston are using their cellphones and smartphones as literal lifelines, I am reminded that yes, we should ensure the program works as well as it can; but we must remain absolutely committed in those efforts to ensuring that the poorest amongst us have access.”

González’s full written testimony is available here:

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