Correction: An earlier version of this editorial incorrectly stated that the FCC offered no immediate explanation for changes to its Lifeline program. On the same day as the changes were made, the FCC released the order for reconsideration and a news release about the action. This version has been updated.
IN HIS first speech in the role, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai extolled the importance of bridging the digital divide between those who can afford Internet access and those who cannot. Days later, though, he opened another gap, this time between his words and his actions.
Mr. Pai used his inaugural remarks to express his commitment to “bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.” Another early pledge to publish pending FCC regulations in a pilot program geared toward greater transparency was equally encouraging. But in a single Friday afternoon, the FCC took steps to undermine both promises: It removed nine companies from the roster of its Lifeline program for low-income broadband consumers, and it retracted four reports — two directly related to the digital divide — from its record.
The FCC launched Lifeline in 1985 to make phone service more affordable for low-income Americans by allowing them to purchase discounted services from participating carriers. In 2016, the FCC shifted its focus to broadband access, and as part of that effort it began granting companies the right to enroll in the program nationally. This move stitched up holes in a state-by-state patchwork of participants to make the market everywhere more competitive. The nine companies booted from Lifeline this month owed their status to the change.
Mr. Pai argues that the Lifeline designations were an Obama administration rush job and that pulling them back affected only a small percentage of the more than 900 companies in the program. An FCC spokesman also noted that the retracted reports remain in the former FCC chairman’s online archive, although they now “have no legal or other effect or meaning.”
That’s all true. But critics are right to worry that Mr. Pai’s decisions may be the first steps in crippling Lifeline. He has long expressed skepticism of the program, citing concerns about fraud, although in a July 2016 congressional hearing on the subject he admitted he had yet to uncover any. Already, Mr. Pai has called for a hold on litigation in a court case challenging the FCC’s authority to approve companies for national Lifeline participation, and it is unclear whether the agency will ever resume its defense in the case.
The revocation of the reports — one of the four focused on expanding WiFi networks in primary and secondary schools and libraries, and another on improving the nation’s digital infrastructure — only lends credence to concerns about Mr. Pai’s stated commitment to closing the digital divide. It certainly throws cold water on his claims to transparency.
And these aren’t the only reasons to fear the FCC is headed in a disturbing direction. Mr. Pai has also expressed eagerness to roll back other Obama-era changes to the agency that make for a freer and fairer Internet. That’s one area where we can hope that, once again, he does not mean what he says.