Income inequality, the distance between the haves and the have-nots, continues to grow. The pandemic accelerated, and in many cases laid bare, the corruptions that rig public policy to suck resources away from the majority of people into the hands of the few. One of the most obvious places we have seen the corruptions of growing inequality is Americans’ access to affordable high-speed broadband.
Some Americans have considerably better and faster access to broadband, and many do not. Not surprisingly, the reasons for this are the same reasons every facet of society is struggling with untenable inequalities: the corruption of private industry and a public policy and accountability system that rarely punishes abuses of power. The overwhelming majority of Americans have no “real choice in internet providers” because of monopolistic and duopolistic privatization of our municipalities’ infrastructure.
A new report from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Office of Inspector General (OIG) calls out “approximately a dozen” internet service providers (ISPs) for committing fraud by stealing from the low-income COVID relief program. In the most simple of terms, about a dozen broadband providers used fraudulent means of claiming large enrollments in the Affordable Connectivity Program (ACP), bilking taxpayers out of millions of dollars. The ACP was the program that replaced the Emergency Broadband Benefit (EBB) and, at this point, has funding set to sunset in 2024-2025.
The OIG does not specify which providers committed fraud, but according to the report, “the most egregious example identified, more than one thousand Oklahoma households were enrolled based on the eligibility of a single BQP, a 4-year old child who receives Medicaid benefits. The child’s first and last names, date of birth and L4SSN were used over and over again—often several times each day—to complete new ACP enrollment transactions beginning in December 2021.” According to the report, three ISPs “claimed more than $365,000” in taxpayer reimbursements on more than 1000 “enrollments” based on the 4-year-old’s Medicaid benefits.
That’s not fraud being perpetrated by the citizens, which is what conservatives love to nitpick on when they are trying to cut social services. Those are big companies perpetrating some big-time fraud. This comes on top of the fact that broadband providers have long ago abandoned even the pretense of building out the high-speed infrastructure to rural areas and poor areas that they have been given tax subsidy after tax subsidy for.
Conservatives have argued that the reason so many Americans were hurting for affordable access to an essential utility like workable internet was that the telecom industry needed more deregulation. The fact that telecoms have enjoyed monopolies across the country and have repeatedly abused consumers while not building out affordable infrastructure seems to mean no never mind. Under Trump’s Ajit Pai-corrupted FCC, the GOP tried to kick 70% of people off of their low-income broadband. This was in 2017.
Pai’s argument at the time was they had to cut back on low-income programs because of the fear that citizens were taking advantage of the help. This claim of course was not supported by facts, while there was nothing but evidence to the contrary: The only people defrauding the government in regards to “low-income internet” were companies like AT&T. Republicans didn’t have any idea, or more specifically, didn’t care to provide low-income families more affordable internet access. No, former Verizon lawyer Pai simply slowed down progress, declawed his agency, and allowed a boatload of big business fraud. He did this while AT&T “systemically overcharged neediest schools” for internet access.
The Biden administration has made efforts to begin fixing what the GOP broke. They have added a lot of money into the infrastructure bill earmarked for broadband. By putting money towards getting low-income homes broadband and internet access, including a $50 Emergency Broadband Benefit program during the pandemic, the Democratic Party once again shows itself to be the only political party between the two in our system that seems willing to actually try and fix some of our country’s inequalities.
There are quite a few problems that must be overcome in order for the government to achieve broader connections for all Americans more comprehensively. These include creating more accurate mapping of who has and who does not have access to broadband infrastructure. However, in every single case, regulating and holding big telecommunications companies accountable would be a step in the direction of progress.
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Low-income families can get up to $50 a month in broadband subsidies now
FCC just voted to kick 70% of people off of their low income broadband plans
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