FCC must halt cuts to Lifeline broadband subsidies in tribal regions, says court

The cuts, if implemented, would cause "widespread loss of vital telecom services," say the judges.

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An appeals court on Friday blocked the Federal Communications Commission's plan to cut a broadband subsidy in tribal regions.

If the cut were implemented, "tribal populations will suffer widespread loss of vital telecommunications services" that are important "for day-to-day medical, educational, family care, and other functions," judges Sri Srinivasan, Patricia Millett and Cornelia Pillard of the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit said in a stay order.

The FCC voted last November to make cuts to the Tribal Lifeline subsidy program, which would have taken away a $25-per-month subsidy from tribal residents in urban areas, leaving them with only the basic $9.25 subsidy plan, according to Ars Technica. The vote also reportedly limited options for rural tribal residents, barring them from using the $25 subsidy to buy telecom service from resellers.

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The court said the FCC failed to support its arguments that changes to the Tribal Lifeline program would eliminate unnecessary spending and encourage "development of communications infrastructure in underserved areas." The stay order allows the $25 subsidy to remain in place for tribal residents in both rural and urban areas.

The Lifeline subsidy program has been around for 32 years and helped subsidize broadband service -- originally phone connections and now internet as well -- for the poor. The program allows low-income individuals to choose to use a $9.25-per-month subsidy to pay for either phone or broadband service.

To encourage provider participation in the program, the FCC in 2016 began approving companies rather than requiring them to get approvals from each state in which they offered the subsidies. However, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last year said that the FCC overreached its authority because states or federal government shouldn't decide which company can join the program.

Although the court has issued the stay order for changes to the Lifeline program in tribal regions, the lawsuit will still need to go through a legal process in order to determine a final outcome.

The FCC didn't immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did the National Lifeline Association, the Oceti Sakowin Tribal Utility Authority or the Crow Creek Sioux Tribe, which are among the groups suing the FCC.