WASHINGTON (CNS) — Gloria Tristani, who served for four years on the Federal Communications Commission, spent part of her day Sept. 26 protesting outside FCC headquarters in Washington — as the current commissioners were meeting.

She was there to demonstrate against potential drastic cuts to the FCC’s “Lifeline” program, which was put in place 12 years before Tristani began her 1997-2001 tenure at the FCC.

Lifeline provides discounted telephone and — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in 2005 — internet service to qualifying low-income households throughout the United States.

Last November, the FCC, under new chairman Ajit Pai, proposed changes to the program that would cut off, according to its critics, up to 90 percent of all Lifeline users.

“It’s really very hard to tell what the time frame is for this order,” Tristani told Catholic News Service in an Oct. 1 telephone interview. Although a comment period on the proposed changes ended in March, more than six months ago, the FCC has yet to schedule Lifeline on its agenda for a public meeting, and Pai himself was silent on any Lifeline plans at a post-meeting news conference Sept. 26.

It could be that the FCC needs to rethink its approach after a federal court in August halted an FCC plan to remove a $25 subsidy to help low-income households on tribal lands gain phone and internet service.

The court said a group suing the FCC for trying to remove the subsidy last November would likely be victorious in its contention that the FCC’s action was “arbitrary and capricious,” and the FCC seems to have failed to consider if tribal residents would have other ways get online access if the plan were put into full effect, or prove that the changes would not lead to mass disconnection.

“Nearly 13 million households participate in Lifeline,” said Jane Lee, a policy fellow at Public Knowledge, which opposes the proposed Lifeline cuts. “And the program helps ensure students can take online academic courses and complete homework, job seekers can conduct employment searches and schedule work, parents can arrange for child care, caregivers can access health care information and telemedicine applications, and those in danger can call 911 and access other public safety resources.”

What was clear during the comment period about proposed cuts to the program, Tristani said, is that “everybody thinks this is a bad idea, including the industry.”

Small providers such as Boost Mobile and Metro PCS, which lease network access from large carriers, like AT&T and Verizon, currently serve the lion’s share of the Lifeline market. However, the proposed FCC changes would deny these providers the right to offer Lifeline service because they do not build and maintain their own networks.

“In some areas like Puerto Rico, for example, they account for 75 percent of the providers,” said Tristani, who was born on the island. “So you’re hitting the problem very hard.”

Asked about the motive for cutting Lifeline service, Tristani told CNS, “I suspect they might say this is to root out fraud and abuse. But because there were some bad resellers, you wipe everybody else out? And by doing so you take away service form the neediest Americans all over the country, the contiguous 48 states and places outside the country, and Puerto Rico.”

“Puerto Ricans are struggling very hard economically” after the devastation wrought by Hurricane Maria a year ago, she added.

“Lifeline is a lifeline. But it’s not just Puerto Rico. It’s Americans of all places. It’s an urban need, it’s a rural need. It’s a need for rural Americans. It’s a need for many veterans,” she added. “We’re not talking about something gargantuan.”