A DC District Court judge on Friday struck down an FCC ruling that cut internet subsidies for thousands of Native American families living on rural sections of reservations. The FCC’s initial decision to gut the Tribal Lifeline program drastically limited the ability of rural reservation dwellers to obtain internet and cell phone service.
The Tribal Lifeline program, a spinoff of the Lifeline program that was established in 2000, provided a $25 subsidy for citizens of federally recognized tribes that lived on their reservation. It was created to address a problem that finds its roots in the capitalistic nature of America’s telecommunications industry: Like the broadband shortage currently facing much of rural America, the companies that provide phone and internet services to Native nations ignored rural Native peoples simply because they realized there wasn’t much profit to be made building infrastructure for a small number of people living long distances from one another.
Given the growing dependency of the American economy on such services, to refuse rural Native peoples service amounted to ensuring these communities would trail behind economically, which plays into systemic educational and healthcare failures in these areas. In September 2018, the Broadband Commission for Sustainable Development published a report in which it declared broadband infrastructure to be “as essential as water and electricity network.”
And yet, knowing all this, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai—an idiotic shill in the simplest of terms—made the decision in November 2017 to vote to cut the subsidy for Natives living in urban areas and for Natives in rural areas that buy internet services from resellers, which is the majority of rural Natives. Pai’s vote gave the FCC the 3-2 margin it needed to essentially kneecap the program.
The FCC was attempting to force Natives to completely rely on what are known as facilities-based providers, which, to avoid getting too deep in the weeds, basically means A Big Company. But the big companies have all shied away from the Lifeline program for the same money-hungry reasons, leaving resellers as the main source of internet services for rural Natives. According to the appeals court ruling, by 2015, roughly two-thirds of eligible tribal citizens were getting their internet from resellers.
Tribal governments and resellers have spent the past year-plus trying to overturn the FCC’s 2017 vote; thankfully, the courts seem to have more sense than Pai and his corporate buddies. In August 2018, the U.S. Court of Appeals for DC stayed the FCC’s decision pending an appeal. After both sides stated their case, the court ruled on Friday in favor of the tribes and roasted Pai’s FCC. (You can read the court’s full 26-page ruling at the bottom of this post.) In legalese, the three judge panel wrote that the FCC failed to give a single good reason for limiting the Tribal Lifeline program and said it was abundantly clear that Pai and the FCC hadn’t given a single thought as to what effect the change would have on these communities.
So, for now, the $25 subsidy will remain intact and thousands of Native people can breathe easy. Still, this could all be rendered moot if Pai gets his way and cuts all resellers out of the Lifeline program, because, when you’re an asshole with all the power to throttle and price gouge the poor, why the hell not.