The FCC and its large ISP allies are trying to change the subject in the wake of theirhugely unpopular attack on net neutrality. With net neutrality having such broad, bipartisan support, the FCC is trying to shift the conversation away from net neutrality (which remember, is just a symptom of a lack of broadband competition), toward a largely-hollow focus on expanding broadband to rural areas. The apparent goal: to convince partisans that net neutrality is only a concern among out of touch Hollywood elites
, and the FCC is hard at work on the real problem: deploying broadband to forgotten America.
This attempted pivot was exemplified in a statement last week by FCC boss Ajit Pai
, when he tried to argue his attack on net neutrality was already magically paying dividends for broadband expansion:
"The draft report indicates that the pace of both fixed and mobile broadband deployment declined dramatically in the two years following the prior Commission’s Title II Order. However, the draft report also discussed how, over the course of the past year, the current Commission has taken steps to reduce barriers to infrastructure investment and promote competition in the broadband marketplace. Taken together, these policies indicate that the current FCC is now meeting its statutory mandate to encourage the deployment of broadband on a reasonable and timely basis."
As we've noted repeatedly, the idea that net neutrality stifled sector investment is alie, and the claim that axing popular consumer protections somehow "encouraged competition" is laughable.
Pai has long paid entirely-empty lip service to the task of "closing the digital divide," despite the fact that most of his policies have made this particular problemnotably worse. From propping up business broadband
and prison phone monopolies
to killing attempts to bring competition to the cable box
, Pai has made it clear his top priority is the protection of incumbent ISP revenues from anything even vaguely resembling disruption. While he's busy prattling on about his dedication to the digital divide, he's busy dismantling broadband programs for the poor
and killing policies like net neutrality, driving up costs for everyone
in the internet ecosystem just to please a handful of extremely unpopular telecom giants.
Of course you're not supposed to notice this chasm between rhetoric and reality
when Pai pops up on Twitter to pat himself and hisrecently-formed "Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee" for their unparalleled contributions to closing the digital divide:
Closing the #digitaldivide
is the @FCC
's top priority. Grateful to members of Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee for their hard work in coming up with recommendations for ways to promote digital opportunity! My remarks this morning: https://t.co/skp3ssTkEG
— Ajit Pai (@AjitPaiFCC) January 23, 2018
In his speech before the FCC's shiny new broadband advisory panel (which has been widely criticized as being a who's who of telecom industry lobbyists, executives, and other policy cronies
), Pai again doubles down on his supposed dedication to closing the digital divide:
"First, the BDAC’s work is critical to my top policy priority as FCC Chairman—closing the digital divide. I’ve long said that every American who wants to participate in the digital economy should be able to do so. And the plain reality is that if you live in rural America, you are much less likely to have highspeed Internet access than if you live in a city. If you live in a low-income neighborhood, you are less likely to have high-speed Internet access than if you live in a wealthier area."
Yes, what better way to fix the broadband market then by letting uncompetitive duopolies like Comcast effectively dictate both federaland state telecom policy from stem to stern? It's worth noting that the ambiguous quest to "close the digital divide" has always received endless lip service from politicians and regulators from both parties, many of whom are comically incapable of admitting that a lack of competition
is what's actually driving this problem. Limited competition also drivesprivacy andnet neutrality violations, but fixing the core problem would require standing up to deep-pocketed telecom campaign contributors.
One creative way to finally drive more accountability and competition (especially in low ROI rural markets) is community broadband or public/private partnerships. But as we've long noted, Pai has consistently supported letting ISPs like AT&T and Comcast literally write state laws
banning your town or city from even considering the option, even in instances where private ISPs won't deploy service. It's ironic then, when one of Pai's fellow FCC Commissioners points out that the broadband advisory panel's "findings" covertly malign such community-run alternatives:
Advisory Cmte ( #BDAC
) just released their model code for states. What’s buried on pg 50? Language discouraging #munibroadband
. So much for this agency’s claims of promoting competitive options. Not putting communities or #ConsumersFirst
— Mignon Clyburn (@MClyburnFCC) January 23, 2018
The section in question
(pdf) argues that community broadband is nice and all, but it should never exist without what's effectively the express permission of private ISPs:
"If, and only if, the Rural municipality receives no reasonable and credible proposal from a private Communications Provider to build a Broadband network and otherwise determines that none of the first three options in Article 12(b) are viable and if, and only if, the Rural municipality makes a positive determination of costs, feasibility, sustainability, and that the action is in the interest of the general public may the Rural municipality invest in a Fully Public Funded and Operated Network and/or engage in Public-Led Contracting.
This kind of language, which gives the incumbent ISP the right of first refusal to offer or upgrade service in spotty coverage areas, is commonly used in ISP-written state protectionist laws. The problem is that these promises to build are routinely never followed up on, letting ISPs first deny the right of a community run ISP (or public/private partnership) to even exist, then avoid anything even resembling accountability as it turns a blind eye to its deployment promises. This is a major reason why we've shelled outcountless billions to private ISPs like Verizon for fiber networks that are never fully built.
Private ISPs not only want the right of first refusal, but they often enjoy putting all manner of funding and referendum requirements on the ability to build community broadband networks, knowing full well that ISP lawyers and lobbyists can often derail these projects in the cradle -- whether withlawsuits ordisinformation. Again, the goal is to ban your town and city from being able to explore creative alternatives to the status quo, without making it look
like that's what they're doing.
Pai's focus on the digital divide is a choreographed effort by the industry to distract the public from the fact they're being sold down river exclusively to Comcast, AT&T and Verizon's benefit. You'll note this breathless new adoration for rural broadband runs hand in hand with not-coincidentally-timed op/eds popping up everywhere by ISP lobbying groups like US Telecom
, who are thrilled by the reduction in real oversight but the expansion of taxpayer subsidies:
"This isn’t the first time that a White House has declared the deployment of rural broadband a national priority. What is yet to be determined is the concrete action — via congressional legislation, an improved regulatory environment and federal funding to critical programs — they will follow through on to ensure that every American has access to broadband, no matter where they live."
Of course this "concrete action" involves not only removing all meaningful FCC consumer protections (you're welcome, heartland America) but gutting both state and federal oversight
of some of the least-liked, least-competitive companies in America. But the real goal has nothing to do with rural America, which the lion's share of these folks couldn't care less about. The real goal is to distract you from the government's recent handouts to the telecom sector's largest and most powerful players, and to dress up mindless deregulation and cronyism as an unwavering dedication to America's heartland.
Oh, and just as more and more criticism is being raised about this committee, it appears that the few non-telco industry reps who were on the committee as fig leafs are realizing they made a huge mistake. San Jose's mayor Sam Liccardo has just resigned from the panel
and not pulled any punches in his explanation for why.
"It has become abundantly clear that despite the good intentions of several participants, the industry-heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public. The apparent goal is to create a set of rules that will provide industry with easy access to publicly-funded infrastructure at taxpayer-subsidized rates, without any obligation to provide broadband to underserved residents."
So, while Pai pats himself on the back for "closing the digital divide" while actual people dealing with the digital divide
are quitting his little consortium and pointing out that the recommendations will do more harm to the digital divide.