Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is at it again, undercutting support for dissemination of broadband internet service when it doesn’t suit the interests of major telecommunications companies. His latest effort involves capping spending on the FCC’s Universal Service programs, which are intended to make broadband available to poor urban neighborhoods and underserved rural areas. Mr. Pai and the other two Republican commissioners on the five person board have voted for the plan, and the next step will be a three month public comment period before the commissioners take a final vote. If most people commenting on the plan are against it, then Mr. Pai and his fellow Republican commissioners will likely ignore their wishes and subvert the comment period with shenanigans intended to muddy the waters, just as they did two years ago with the net neutrality rule change.
Government support – or lack of it – for promoting broadband internet service for the entire country is a mishmash of conflicting goals, regulations, and laws at the federal, state, and municipal levels. The FCC under Mr. Pai serves the interests of telecommunications companies, which often do not coincide with those of citizens, while paying lip service to broadband service for all. The current president, who appointed Mr. Pai chairman, is hopelessly muddled in his understanding of the aims and actions of his own administration, as he demonstrated once again in his recent comments about how farmers cannot connect benefit their operations by connecting to broadband service because of deficient infrastructure in the countryside. Of course he and his followers do not care about the facts behind that deficiency, and he may get around as he always does to blaming Barack Obama and Democrats generally for the problem while he does nothing to alleviate it and his administration actively makes it worse.
A United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) photo of a crew installing electric service lines in the countryside. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 brought service to underserved areas through electric cooperatives owned by members, bypassing private utilities which saw little profit in the enterprise.
State legislatures around the country continue passing laws intended to cripple the ability of municipalities to take matters into their own hands and get broadband service to small towns and outlying areas. The legislators, mostly Republican, pass these laws at the behest of lobbyists for the major telecommunications companies, who claim services provided by municipalities would undercut their ability to compete. But the big companies aren’t interested in competing in small towns and the boonies anyway! Really they’re afraid it’s a good idea that will spread, and therefore they attack it as socialism, by which they mean it’s bad. Large telecommunications companies, like the large banks, are all for socialism when it benefits them.
The Flintstones: “They’re the modern stone age family!”
Municipal governments and regional electric cooperatives are the only groups trying to ensure broadband service for poor and rural citizens, and trying to do it without price gouging. They get little help from federal and state governments, which often work either at cross purposes are try to undermine their efforts, again with the strings being pulled behind the scenes by Verizon, AT&T, Comcast, Charter, Sprint, and the rest of the big telecommunications companies. Naturally absolutely everyone says they are all for expanding broadband internet service at reasonable rates to poor and underserved areas – who wouldn’t come out in favor of that? – but the actions of many legislators, regulators, and company executives tell a different story. It would be best for citizens – customers – if everyone from the top down in government and private industry worked consistently and uniformly toward the one goal they all claim to be their mission, which is better serving the public, no matter who they are or where they live.
Ten or more years ago there was some hope among rural internet users that a service called Broadband over Power Lines (BPL) would come along soon to save the day by bringing them high speed internet at affordable prices. Not any more. American Telephone and Telegraph (AT&T) has a program in trials in Georgia that is a last grasp at trying to make the technology feasible without all the stumbling blocks encountered by other companies in earlier efforts. If AT&T’s engineers are successful, BPL may at last be rolling out on a large scale in the next five years.
Because internet service is a two way street, downloading data from a provider to a user and uploading data from a user to a provider, getting reliable, high speed internet to people in the countryside has been more complicated than the similar situation of stringing electrical service to those people in the middle of the last century. Satellite internet service is an option in the countryside, but is limited by slow upload speeds since consumers for good reason are not allowed by government regulation to possess enormously powerful transmitters. Satellite service providers also throttle their customers’ usage at certain limits because there is limited bandwidth available on a satellite.
Linear perspective of 230 kV power lines during blue hour in the Castleton part of Virginia Beach, Virginia. Photo by PumpkinSky.
Point to point microwave service has been an option for people living in or near small towns. It has been a rarely used option, however, because state and local laws passed at the behest of large internet providers hinder the ability of local governments to coordinate with small internet providers in setting up microwave service, which is most often undertaken as a public/private partnership. Cable television and landline telephone companies, where they have strung lines for internet service the last country mile, usually charge high rates on account of their monopoly status, with indifferent customer service also reflecting their status as an only option.
The last option left for some country people has been mobile telephone internet service. There are numerous problems associated with reliance on cellular internet service, from the possibility of poor signal to the certainty of data caps and high costs. It’s certainly not the best choice for regularly streaming video or trying to run an internet dependent business. The next generation of wireless data technology, 5G, will be available within the next few years, but it’s questionable whether it will solve the problems mentioned above. When a customer does have a solid connection to 5G service, it will be lightning fast.
The possibility of BPL had always seemed like a Godsend for rural internet users because it would have made connecting to broadband service as easy as plugging a modem into an electrical outlet, and because power lines have high capacity there would have been no need for data caps. The prices would have been relatively low by industry standards because the infrastructure was largely already in place, and because utility companies were more highly regulated than cable and telephone companies. “Would have been” is unfortunately where BPL will have to float in limbo, never to be a real option unless AT&T or some other technology company can resurrect it and make it viable.
Wireless carriers like to offer “unlimited” data plans to customers, and as they currently configure their plans they truly are unlimited, but a wary customer would be wise to check the fine print anyway. The typical wireless data plan for a monthly billing cycle offers a little over 20 GigaBytes (GB) at the fastest speed available, and thereafter throttles the customer down to slower speeds. The customer still has access to wireless data for the remainder of the billing cycle, though at a reduced speed that can sometimes make using the internet frustrating, or practically impossible at the worst. That satisfies the letter of an “unlimited” offering, if not the spirit.
A buffet lunch at a conference in November 2017. Photo by Raysonho.
Characterizing a wireless unlimited data plan as an “all you can eat” buffet misses the mark because most people can and do find ways to use more data as the carriers offer more, while their capacity for gorging on more pasta or Chinese food really does have limits. Wireless data, and broadband service generally, is more like the road system in that with greater capacity comes greater traffic. Build it and they will come, as it were.
The next generation of wireless data will be 5G, available in some areas of the country starting in 2019. The speed and capacity of the 5G network is supposed to be ten to a hundred times greater than the current standard of 4G. Supposedly it will be competitive with wired broadband service. That’s a good thing, and it’s likely that carriers may be able to offer “unlimited” data plans that will be closer to the true meaning of the word, as in “without limits”. There’s reason for skepticism, however, if we recall the highway model for wireless broadband service rather than the buffet model.
In the buffet model, 5G service would expand the size of the restaurant, increasing the seating capacity, and the servers would never allow any of the foods at the buffet to be completely depleted without quickly replenishing them. That doesn’t mean that the average customer will magically be able to eat more in this roomier restaurant with lightning quick service. In the highway model, 5G service will amount to more and wider lanes that will allow traffic to move faster, at least until the improved highway fills up and the increased traffic slows everyone down again because people use the increased capacity to drive more.
Bumper to bumper traffic in Las Vegas, Nevada, in May 2008. Photo by Erum Patel.
Like a city with a highly developed road network, a 5G wireless network will attract manufacturers who will make things for people to use in taking advantage of the excellent new service. For 5G that means expanding use of Internet of Things (IoT) devices and, eventually, self-driving vehicles. Those expanded uses will fill the capacity of the new network, making any carrier’s offer of unlimited data plans to consumers again a proposition that will likely be restrained in the fine print. The carriers like using the word “unlimited” in attracting customers, however, since they know customers can no more resist the fantasy of unlimited data than they can resist an “all you can eat” buffet, regardless of the reality of limited capacity.
Ajit Pai, Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), requires confirmation by the Senate as a board member before the end of the year to continue with the agency. If he is not confirmed for another four year term and is removed from office, the current president will most likely replace him with another Republican and advance the nomination of that person or another of the board’s two Republican members to the chairmanship. In the end, getting rid of Chairman Pai may not alter the current course of the FCC toward revoking Net Neutrality rules and allowing the merger of the Sinclair Broadcast Group with Tribune Media, but his removal does offer the opportunity to change course, however slim that may be.
Since his advancement to the chairmanship at the beginning of the year, Mr. Pai has worked to dismantle Net Neutrality under the Orwellian rubric “Restoring Internet Freedom”. The public comment period on the proposed rule change closed at the end of August, and now everyone awaits the decision of the five member board, three Republicans and two Democrats. It’s difficult to say what may be taking so long, considering that Mr. Pai has the votes, and by his actions earlier in the summer it appeared the fix was in anyway. Perhaps he’s having a hard time drafting the new regulations and lowering the bar enough to reflect proper deference to the major players like Comcast.
In the 1972 film Cabaret, Liza Minnelli and Joel Grey sing “Money, Money”.
The other major issue on Chairman Pai’s agenda is the merger of Sinclair with Tribune Media, which he favors. To advance his position for taking away regulations that treat Internet Service Providers as common carriers and therefore subjects them to rules of Net Neutrality, Mr. Pai uses language about protecting the consumer and getting the government out of the way of innovation, yet when it comes to allowing one enormous broadcast company, Sinclair, to become even larger and therefore monopolize some smaller media markets around the country, he suddenly and conveniently forgets his previous arguments. Monopolies have historically neither looked out for consumers in any way other than to take their money, nor have they had any incentive to innovate in any way other than how to take even more money.
The comments from the public in favor of keeping Net Neutrality regulations in place have outstripped the comments against, and to the limited extent the public has been paying attention to the Sinclair/Tribune merger, most are against it. Will the FCC, and in particular Chairman Pai, listen to the public or to corporate interests? It’s not hard to imagine the answer to that question if you subscribe to the wisdom of the comedian Lily Tomlin, who said “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” Be that as it may, the public retains the option through Congress to say to Mr. Pai “You’re fired!”
“My, What Big Ears You Have”, a 1967 episode of the sitcom Bewitched, with Dick York as the beleaguered Darrin Stephens, whose mother-in-law has cast a spell on him that causes his ears to grow every time he lies.
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC)net neutrality rulings of 2015 are under attack from – surprise, surprise! – Ajit Pai, the former attorney for Verizon and new FCC chairman. Mr. Pai calls the rollback of Title II regulations “Restoring Internet Freedom”. It’s clear Mr. Pai has read and understood his Orwell. Part of the niceties involved in rolling back the Internet Service Provider (ISP) common carrier regulations of Title II that Mr. Pai and his Republican allies in Congress and the White House want to have happen are invitations for public comment on the FCC website. It turns out, however, that when the FCC isn’t complaining about John Oliver inciting his viewers to inundate the FCC website with comments in support of Title II, they are ignoring the questionable origin of comments against Title II from citizens whose identity may have been hijacked by the very companies they pay for monthly internet service, companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T.
Astroturfing is nothing new in politics, but to ignore the obvious signs of astroturfing in a letter writing or email campaign to government regulators or congresspeople signifies a set agenda that is not to be swayed by emails or letters of varying opinions. The fix is in, in other words. It’s clear from FCC Chairman Pai’s previous public comments what his opinion is on Title II and net neutrality, and now that the FCC board has a Republican majority, his opinion is likely to become policy. It is hypocrisy then for the FCC to invite public comment and ignore for whatever reason the comments it’s board doesn’t want to hear, even though they are genuine, while accepting the clearly astroturfed comments originating from industry insiders.
Ajit V. Pai, new Chairman of the FCC.
Lewis Black in a concert in Amsterdam, The Netherlands, after the 2008 financial meltdown, comments on capitalism, greed, and how the United States government handled the crisis. In the end, there were no repercussions to the wealthy for the damage they inflicted on the working and middle class people who pay their way year after year. Warning: foul language.
Chairman Pai has remarked that in the 90 day public comment process, the FCC will not ” rely on hyberbolic statements about the end of the internet as we know it, and 140-character argle-bargle, but rather on the data.” Presumably the FCC chairman will then be ignoring the considerable amount of 140 character argle-bargle generated by his boss, the Argle-Bargler-in-Chief. Would that it were so. The reality is that the new FCC Chairman and the new President and the new Republican Congress appear to be in perfect agreement on rolling back Title II common carrier regulations for ISPs, and there’s little that ordinary citizens can do to stop them. Try John Oliver’s solution or the one from the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and good luck to you, but in the future pay attention at the ballot box once every two to four years, and every day remember not to buy into the “fruit from your tree” delusion.
Chattanooga Mayor Andy Berke with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler in 2014.
Rural communities and small cities took a blow to their prospects for municipally provided broadband internet service on August 10th when the U.S. Sixth Circuit Court of Appeals in Cincinnati ruled against the Federal Communications Commission’s 2015 order to preempt state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee. Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, had petitioned the FCC to allow them to build municipal broadband networks and the FCC had acted under a provision of the 1996 Telecommunications Act directing it to remove barriers to broadband investment and competition. The Sixth Circuit Court ruled the FCC did not have the power to supersede state law.
19 states have laws hampering the ability of local governments to provide broadband service, with the corporate-funded American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) offering sample legislation to more states. As Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner and now an advisor to Common Cause, put it “Let’s be clear: industry-backed state laws to block municipal broadband only exist because pliant legislators are listening to their Big Cable and Big Telecom paymasters.”
The FCC defines broadband as an upload speed of at least three megabits per second and a download speed of no less than 25 megabits per second, and maintains a map displaying the different types of service available around the country. Even in larger cities where broadband is more commonly available, however, consumers have few choices of internet service provider because for all practical purposes carriers such as Comcast operate as regional monopolies.
The possibility of building municipal broadband networks has been an option in areas of low population density where private internet service providers often display little interest in building out their network for what they see as small return on their investment. People in poorly served areas sometimes turn to satellite service, though it has drawbacks in the form of high latency speeds and throttling of service for users who have reached certain data caps. In the same areas, wireless service can be spotty, with generally low data caps at high cost.
It appears the debate over net neutrality and whether to treat broadband service as a utility may revive, and it will be up to Congress to either strengthen the FCC’s regulatory powers over the states and the industry or to enact legislation defining internet service providers as common carriers, something companies like AT&T and Verizon fought tooth and nail against during the last round of discussions in 2014.