A portrait of Louis Brandeis on the cover of Time magazine on October 19, 1925.
Before he was an associate justice on the Supreme Court of the United States from 1916 to 1939, Louis Brandeis was a progressive lawyer fighting the big monopolies, or trusts, of Gilded Age America. He termed the corrosive effect on democracy of unrestrained business practices “The Curse of Bigness”, and after he joined the Supreme Court he maintained his interest in restraining business interests from trampling the rights of ordinary citizens.
Now President Biden has appointed Lina Khan to the chair of the Federal Trade Commission, and her appointment signals a return to the principles of Louis Brandeis. Lina Khan is an antitrust lawyer and legal scholar who, as a student at Yale Law School in 2017, wrote an article called Amazon’s Antitrust Paradox. The article drew widespread attention for her ideas about how the conventional wisdom of the past 50 or so years regarding regulation of the marketplace based on consumer prices no longer applied in the age of Amazon, a company willing to engage in predatory pricing and use vertical integration in order to stifle competition and monopolize the marketplace.
A profile of Lina Khan in Time from October 17, 2019.
Prior to Ms. Khan’s appointment, another antitrust lawyer and legal scholar, Tim Wu, joined the Biden administration as a Special Assistant to the President for Technology and Competition Policy on the National Economic Council. Mr. Wu is known for helping to write the first network neutrality rules in work for the Federal Communications Commission in 2006. In 2018, he wrote The Curse of Bigness: Antitrust in the New Gilded Age, a book which paid homage to Louis Brandeis and his antitrust work of the Progressive Era.
A Climate Strike protester with an anti Bezos sign in London on February 14, 2020. Photo by Flickr user Socialist Appeal.
With these two people now in key positions in the federal government, perhaps efforts to rein in, or even bust up, big technology companies such as Amazon, Google, Apple, Facebook, and Microsoft, will finally be undertaken seriously and with persistence. In the past, these Big Five technology companies have largely escaped with slaps on the wrist after fitful investigations into their practices.
Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg answered questions from Brandeis University students at an event in January 2016 commemorating the 100th anniversary of Louis Brandeis being nominated to the Supreme Court by President Woodrow Wilson.
As Louis Brandeis understood, and as is apparent from the writings of both Lina Khan and Tim Wu, setting regulatory boundaries for these behemoth businesses not only ensures they act fairly in the marketplace, but protects democracy from their tendency to squash individual liberties when they conflict with their self-interest. And the bigger and less competitive these companies become, the more their self-interest consumes everything in their vicinity, like a beast that can’t stop growing and must swallow anything in its way.
An unofficial remix of the 2021 songs “Bezos I” and “Bezos II”, written and performed by Bo Burnham for his album and Netflix special,Bo Burnham:Inside. Warning: foul language.
To maintain the integrity of a supplied drawing, people usually color as much as they can within the lines. Some people use crayons, while others use markers or pens. When it comes to using electromagnetic spectrum in the United States, the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) is in charge of allocating bands within the spectrum and making sure everyone stays within their specified lines. The NTIA does its work within the Department of Commerce.
The Department of Commerce also oversees the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), which in turn oversees the National Weather Service (NWS). Independent of all these Department of Commerce agencies is the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), which regulates the parts of the spectrum allocated for its oversight by the FTIA, such as radio, television, and cellular phone frequencies. Beginning late last year, the FCC has been auctioning spectrum to mobile phone companies for them to use in their 5G networks. When the FCC auctioned off spectrum in the 24GHz (gigahertz) band, they raised alarm within the NOAA since that agency uses the 23.8GHz band in its weather satellites to measure water vapor in the atmosphere, a key component in its ability to forecast the weather.
This image of an outdated January 2016 Spectrum Wall Chart from the NTIA is only useful as an overview of just how tightly packed bandwidth allocation is in parts of the spectrum, based on the jumble of colors. For a better view, download a PDF (Portable Document Format) of the chart from the NTIA website, though even then it can be a strain on the eyes without higher magnification.
Now anyone who has ever manually tuned a radio receiver with a dial knows the radio stations do not stay exactly within their spectrum lines at all times, and depending on the power of the transmitters the different stations use and atmospheric conditions and the varying state of the ionosphere, some stations can occasionally push into the territory of other stations. That is what worries NOAA administrators about the 24GHz band proposed for 5G use by mobile phone companies and their man in the FCC, Chairman Ajit Pai. NOAA administrators believe 24GHz is too close for comfort and may occasionally interfere with its use of 23.8GHz, which it cannot change because it is determined by the physical law of water vapor’s behavior. They believe the interference could cause as much as a 30 percent drop in forecasting efficiency, akin to stepping back in time to 1980.
This inter agency squabble isn’t even necessary, it turns out, because if the FCC and American mobile phone companies followed the European model for ensuring minimal interference with weather satellites, they would simply add greater restrictions to the transmitting power of 5G antennas in the higher bandwidths and rely more extensively on mid-range bandwidths that are not only better for 5G transmission, but also safely removed from the vicinity of crucial weather data transmissions.
A May 2019 news report from Sky News in London, England.
There will be a World Radiocommunication Conference in Egypt in October and November, where attendees will set international standards for 5G. Considering the attitudes and policies of the current presidential administration, the American delegation will probably resist the European model and go its own incautious way in order to serve the interests of the major telecommunications companies. It’s possible the American model may turn out fine eventually, but considering the drawbacks of being wrong, wouldn’t it be prudent to heed the concerns of weather forecasters, at least until more field testing proves without a doubt the safety of using the 24GHz band of the spectrum? To satisfy the greed of telecommunications executives and the desire of some smartphone users for faster loading Facebook feeds, is it worth having a hurricane drop in on us unexpectedly? A real hurricane, that is, not one drawn with crayons, however neatly.
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.
Last Sunday night, MeTV, a nationally syndicated broadcaster of television shows from the 1950s through the 1980s, aired some episodes of The Dick Van Dyke Show that the show’s creator and producer, Carl Reiner, had selected as his favorites. For anyone familiar with viewing the show on a high quality format such as the Blu-ray boxed set, MeTV’s presentation most likely looked terrible not because the source they used may have been inferior, but because of what MeTV did to it, speeding it up to cram in more commercials, which unfortunately also gave it a “Soap Opera Effect”.
Speeding up old TV shows is a technology that has been widely used by cable and satellite channels for almost a decade now, but over-the-air broadcasters have used it less probably because their video is not compressed like cable and satellite signals, making more noticeable any dickering with their higher quality signal. In order to send the signals of hundreds of channels to their subscribers, cable and satellite providers compress them. High definition video over cable or satellite is often lower quality than the uncompressed video broadcast over-the-air. In addition to video compression then, cable and satellite channels have been digitally speeding up some old TV shows to put in more commercials. Speeding up a half hour show by 7 to 8 percent doesn’t sound like much, but it’s enough to fit in 3 to 4 more commercials.
A publicity still from Charlie Chaplin’s 1921 movie The Kid, with Charlie Chaplin and Jackie Coogan. The jerky motion evident in movies of the early twentieth century was caused by shooting at a lower frame rate than the film’s projection rate. To avoid similar jerky motion when speeding up old television shows, programming providers interpolate digitally manufactured frames which unfortunately give the shows a more or less disquieting “Soap Opera Effect”. To see digital manipulation done well and not on the cheap, and for a worthy creative purpose, see Peter Jackson’s 2018 documentary using archival footage of British soldiers in World War I, They Shall Not Grow Old.
Time and technology march on, and in the past few years even syndicated broadcasters whose channels primarily arrive to viewers over-the-air, like MeTV, have gotten into the digital manipulation for profit game. It’s also manipulation of the viewers, who may get the disquieting feeling that suddenly there is something off about their favorite old shows. They may feel they are losing their marbles, or being gaslighted by the programming provider subtly changing the look of shows. Some viewers, maybe most, may never notice the difference, which is of course what the programmers are hoping. The programmers want to make more money while not editing the shows for length. They are not concerned about artistic integrity in not editing as much as they are about too many viewers familiar with the shows noticing the edits and complaining, as well as having to put up a disclaimer at the beginning of the show.
It is beyond the scope of this post to explore why the FCC doesn’t require a disclaimer for time compression of shows or how the rights agreements work between the owners of the programming and the broadcasters. Ordinarily altering a creative work without permission from the originator would be a violation of copyright. Apparently the rights agreements allow time compression, at least for some shows. Since the manipulators can time compress digitally now without noticeably raising the pitch of the actors’ voices, as on a record played at the wrong speed, the use of the technology has broadened to more shows. Some viewers may notice that the actors in late twentieth century TV shows now talk as fast as the actors in screwball comedy movies of the 1930s and ’40s. Since the actors on the TV shows didn’t intend that kind of speed, the comic timing of their speech rhythms are disrupted.
The “Soap Opera Effect”, also known as “Motion Smoothing” or something similar, comes from interpolating digitally manufactured frames to keep the sped up video from looking jerky. New television sets have the feature in their settings for those viewers who like the way it makes fast action easier to follow. The reason it can make some video look like a soap opera shot on cheap videotape equipment is because of how it shares the characteristic of a higher frame rate than programming shot on film. Many viewers don’t care for the effect and, if they know where to find the setting on their TV, turn it off. Seeing a program sped up by the provider can make viewers scratch their heads and wonder if somehow the “Motion Smoothing” setting on their TV turned itself on again. No, do not adjust your set; that unsettling look of your favorite old show is originating from the programming provider.
TBS (Turner Broadcasting System), a basic cable and satellite channel, has been a primary purveyor of sped up programming, which is ironic considering its sister channel TCM (Turner Classic Movies) is committed to presenting movies in their original form without interruption.
The Dick Van Dyke Showwas a high quality program in every way, from the writing to the acting to the photography. Like many shows before and after the relatively brief popularity of shooting on videotape in the 1970s and ’80s, The Dick Van Dyke Show was shot on film. Viewed on a standard definition television set smaller than 30 inches in diagonal measurement the higher quality of film was barely discernible from videotaped programming. It is in faithful reproduction on DVD or Blu-ray formats, viewed on a high definition television set larger then 30 inches, that the photography of of old shows shot on film really shines. Viewed under such conditions, The Dick Van Dyke Show is crystal clear and not in the least bit muddy or odd looking. All that went out the window last Sunday night with MeTV’s sped up presentation of the show. It’s doubtful Mr. Reiner, by all accounts a man of integrity, and as shown in his lifetime of work a man devoted to high quality creative presentation, knew or approved of MeTV’s video corruption of his most prized creation. In all likelihood he selected the episodes for presentation and contributed some promotional bits and that was the end of his involvement. Meanwhile, let the viewer beware.
Editor’s note: This post has been delayed one day on account of dismally slow internet service, most likely caused by the service provider’s defective equipment. Thanks, Ajit Pai, Chairman of the FCC, for continuing to safeguard the interests of monopolistic corporations while disregarding those of ordinary citizens!
Waiting through an outbreak of severe weather can be nerve wracking if you’re one of the millions of Americans living in substandard housing. Related to withstanding severe weather events, substandard housing means no basement or a weak foundation, poorly engineered roofing, shoddy workmanship overall, bad drainage around the structure, easily shattered windows, and any number of other problems large and small generally not present in the well built housing of the upper classes. Should something bad happen to a substandard structure due to severe weather, the people living there often do not have the resources to recover from it.
Severe weather affects everyone, rich and poor, but what is usually overlooked is how the poor disproportionately suffer the adverse effects of it both coming and going. To know that should a tornado, a hurricane, a derecho, a hailstorm, ice storm, or flood deal even a glancing blow to the place you live causes many anxious days, first in watching the weather forecast and then during the day or days of the event. There’s personal safety, of course, and the possibility of unaffordable emergency medical attention, and then the possibility of damage to the structure and the unaffordability of repairs, if it is repairable. The last thing any person living in a structure without a safe, reinforced room or basement wants to hear is the freight train roar of an approaching tornado, and to have children to protect must make even imagining such a scenario unbearable.
Hurricane, Bahamas, an 1898 painting by Winslow Homer (1836-1910).
All things are relative, and while comparatively few people in the United States have to exist in notoriously unsafe conditions like those in a Brazilian favela, there are still far too many in this rich country who live a hair’s breadth away from personal and financial disaster, a ruin which can befall them in a few unfortunate moments with the caprice of bad weather. As severe weather outbreaks become more frequent and as the population continues to increase, the possibilities for deaths, injuries, and property damage will also increase, all of which burden poor people more than others (yes, even death, because of the costs to survivors).
In the 1978 BBC television production of dramatist Dennis Potter’sPennies from Heaven, Bob Hoskins as sheet music salesman Arthur Parker encounters a busker called The Accordion Man, played by Kenneth Colley, who in return for Arthur treating him to a meal treats Arthur to a rendition of the song “Pennies from Heaven” (lip synched to a 1937 recording by Arthur Tracy).
Insurance companies’ business model currently has them paying out after disaster strikes (contesting the payout all the way, and digging in their heels where they can), while offering little incentive for builders and developers to proof structures against disaster. Eventually, as expenses incurred by natural disasters mount to insupportable levels, insurance companies will have to come around to a more preventive strategy of offering lower premiums for stronger structures, something easier for them and builders and developers to cooperate on for wealthier homeowners. Where government can step in to protect poor people is to enforce insurance policy standards for their housing, rather than continuing to allow the corruption and slapdash oversight which currently riddles the market. Meantime, as always you’re on your own out there, particularly if you’re not rich, and you have to look out for yourself to stay safe. Good luck.
Video subscription service Netflix is increasing prices across the board early this year as the company finances its ever increasing production of original content. For about 4 million customers who still receive discs by mail, down from a peak of about 20 million in 2010, being asked to pay more to subsidize internet streaming content they may not want or, in many cases, be able to access, is a bit dispiriting, as if Netflix has forgotten the wisdom of the old saying “Dance with them what brung you.”
For most of this decade, Netflix has continued its disc-by-mail service as a legacy option while it focused on its streaming service and on offering shows produced in house. Customer service remained excellent even as the catalog of older movies and television shows available on disc steadily diminished. The large catalog of content from the mid-twentieth century and earlier is where Netflix really shined ten or more years ago. Blockbuster never offered as much, even in its belated transformation to Blockbuster Online. Redbox has also never had much to offer customers interested in anything other than the latest releases. Filmstruck had an extensive catalog of older, less widely popular content, but it closed shop last year.
Clipping of a news story from the May 4, 1928 edition of The Boston Post, announcing the start of television broadcasts by station WLEX in Lexington, Massachusetts.
For people in rural areas, streaming is often not an option because they have no broadband service or service that is limited either in speed or data usage. There are probably some Netflix customers who simply prefer a disc over streaming, but the majority of the remaining disc-by-mail customers are likely people for whom streaming is not a viable option. It has become a niche market, to be sure, and one that Netflix will sustain only as long as it generates enough profits to supply cash for the rest of its business. That window is closing.
Next generation television, which will increase the opportunity for local broadcasters to open more sub-channels offering niche content such as old movies and television shows, is at least another year away, and probably two or three before widespread adoption. Next generation television is a voluntary standard for broadcasters to send a 4K signal accompanied by internet data over updated and more expensive transmitters. Home viewers will need a 4K television as well as a next generation tuner, known as ATSC 3.0, and an internet router in order to take full advantage of the new broadcast technology. Viewers can still watch programs broadcast in 4K without setting up to receive the internet portion of the signal, though it’s not clear now if broadcasters will encrypt some of their signals to make them available on subscription or only for those who have enabled the internet signal.
Since the FCC has made the switch voluntary, broadcasters have much wider latitude in how they implement the new technology than they did during the transition from analog to digital, and the power of the new technology itself makes more options possible. The question is whether home viewers will tolerate the targeted advertising enabled by the internet portion of the signal, looking on it as no different than any other internet service.
Fahrenheit 451, the 1966 film adaptation by François Truffaut of Ray Bradbury’s novel, here with Julie Christie and Oskar Werner, is the kind of movie that all but disappeared from broadcast television lineups in the past 30 years. With the possibility of more sub-channels becoming available after the 4K broadcast rollout, perhaps broadcasters will once again air movies like this.
For people who already have SmartTVs and use them for internet streaming there will probably be no difficulty in adjusting; for those people in the niche market of getting their video entertainment by way of a disc in the mail and then being left to enjoy it in peace, having to cope with only minor nosiness about them on the Netflix website, the adjustment may be a step too far into creepiness. It will be interesting to see if next generation 4K broadcast television and its improved reception in rural areas, combined with a wider range of content, fills the gap being left by the general move toward internet streaming and, if it keeps broadcast television free, whether it will be an improvement over most of those services, though it is hard to imagine a local television station going as far as devoting a sub-channel to obscure art house films.
After 30 years of dominance on the AM radio dial, conservative talk shows are starting to wane in popularity as their main audience of older white people who live mostly in suburbs and rural communities dwindles as a share of the entire United States population. That is not to say AM radio will make great strides in improving its programming, since so far the slack appears to be taken up by sports talk programs. The demographic groups who enjoy getting their hatred and resentment stirred up by radio hosts such as Rush Limbaugh are diminishing in number, and eventually the radio dollars will turn away from them altogether, and that does represent an improvement.
When the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) removed the Fairness Doctrine policy in 1987, they cleared the way for opinionated talk radio programs such as Limbaugh’s to flourish. The question is – why didn’t liberal talk radio programs gain equal popularity when the rules changed? After all, by numbers alone Democrats are in the majority in this country. The answer lies in two areas relating to the differing mindsets of conservatives and liberals and their uses of media.
A World War II poster from the Office of War Information. Today’s wording might suggest you are free to listen to the one side of a question confirming your opinion.
The conservative mindset is typically authoritarian and believes in black and white answers to social and political problems, whereas liberals are more likely to see shades of gray. A conservative tunes into a talk radio program with his or her mind already made up in most cases, and is looking merely for reaffirmation from the host, who has proved over the years to be more than willing to oblige, often with a helping of a vituperate diatribe against liberals as a bonus. A liberal is less likely to be persuaded by the simple answers a single radio host can provide in an hour or two.
In an appearance on the PBS program Austin City Limits aired in 1987, Fats Domino and his band perform “I Hear You Knockin'”.
The other answer to the 30 years of dominance by conservative talk radio lies in the demographics of the daytime radio audience. Who listens to the radio during the day? Truck drivers, construction workers, suburban and rural commuters in their own vehicles, farmers in the enclosed cabs of their tractors. In other words, mostly older, white conservatives. Liberals living in the cities are at work during the day, and when they are commuting they often listen to podcasts of a wide variety of programs. Podcasts are a relatively recent development, and are not as popular with older people as the they are with people under 40. People over 40, and especially over 50, listen to live radio. Many of them listen to Rush Limbaugh, and have for decades. They agree with everything he says because he confirms their opinions. There is no room for argument, never mind debate.
After the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) five member board voted along party lines to roll back Net Neutrality regulations last month, it wasn’t surprising to see some major Internet Service Providers (ISPs) trot out rate increases soon afterward. The new regulatory structure doesn’t take effect until 60 days after it is published in the Federal Register, which may take a few more weeks while the FCC completes final edits to the paperwork, but companies like Comcast just couldn’t wait. Meanwhile, in another predictable outcome of the end of Net Neutrality, over 20 states have started instituting their own rules in an effort to adhere to the old guidelines, while also suing the FCC to prevent it from trying to impose its new rules within each state.
This comes down to regulating interstate commerce in the form of communications companies, which is the only reason for federal agencies such as the FCC to exist. It will all have to be sorted out in the courts, and that could take years and many millions of taxpayer dollars, all because FCC Chairman Ajit Pai turned a deaf ear to the majority of Americans while he listened very closely to his corporate masters, such as at Verizon, where he worked as a corporate lawyer before being appointed to the FCC by President Barack Obama, at the behest of Senator Mitch McConnell (R-KY).
“Reinstate Net Neutrality” sign at the January 20, 2018, Women’s March in downtown Los Angeles, California. Photo by Cory Doctorow.
There have been noises from Congress about legislating Net Neutrality, or a semblance of it, once and for all, thereby stripping the FCC of its bouncing ball regulations. Even if one of these measures manages to squeak by with enough votes in Congress, it will then cross the whistle-clean desk of Supreme Leader, who after all is the one who elevated Ajit Pai from FCC board member to chairman, most likely with the express purpose of encouraging him to gut Net Neutrality for the benefit of corporate giants. Supreme Leader will veto any legislation that undercuts his man at the FCC, and there will not be enough votes in Congress to override his veto, since that would require the votes of two thirds of the members.
In that case, it appears everyone will have to get used to paying through the nose for broadband internet service in areas of the country where there are only one or two providers, which is to say most areas. Consumers could pay less in a tiered system for service at the speed of dial-up, which is what the FCC has opened the door to now. Instead of being regulated like utilities, which must provide similar service to all consumers universally, the ISPs will be regulated like cable television companies, a business some of them have also been in for years.
The problem vexing consumers is that they usually have few choices for providers of these services, although they have slightly more choices than they do when it comes to their electric service. Still, in a market with limited competition, the advantage lies entirely with the unregulated company that is unfettered to charge whatever it can squeeze from captive consumers. Take it or leave it.
“Wildflowers”, the title song of Tom Petty’s (1950-2017) solo album from 1994.
The last area where ISP giants are working to complete their cornering of the market is in the contest over municipal broadband services, which are usually public/private partnerships between municipalities and smaller ISPs, where the municipality provides some infrastructure and subsidies, and the private company provides the hardware, operations, and maintenance. Municipal broadband often provides better service and better rates to consumers than they can get from the big companies, and is likely to provide service to poor and rural consumers who otherwise would have no service options. No wonder the big companies are intensively lobbying state and local officials to choke off municipal broadband. It appears their greed compels them to throttle competition and now, at their discretion, some services to their customers.
Recently one of the minority Democratic members of the five person board of the FCC took the unusual step of writing an article for distribution in the popular press urging the public to sit up and pay attention to what the majority Republican members of the board are attempting to do with a vote on December 14 to repeal net neutrality rules. Jessica Rosenworcel asked the public to make a fuss with the FCC and with Congress to try postponing the vote until after public hearings. The vote will likely still take place on the 14th, and the outcome is certain considering the three to two Republican majority on the Commission board. The next step will probably see the rule changes challenged in court, with litigation taking years.
Congress could change how a regulatory agency like the FCC goes about its business so that it is less swayed by the variable political winds, but it appears there is little will in the Republican Congress to overrule the agency and tie it down to enforcing a net neutrality law enacted by legislators. There is some discussion in technology circles that introduction of 5G wireless service in the next few years will change the competitive landscape since 5G speeds and bandwidth will challenge the monopoly of wired service providers for the crucial last mile of service to customers’ homes. Until now, wireless internet service providers like Verizon and AT&T could not compete with wired providers like Comcast and Charter because their service was slower and not capable of handling the bandwidth demands of home users piling up GigaBytes of usage every month, usually by streaming video.
5G may indeed change the competitive landscape between a few large internet service provider companies as it rolls out, but customers will still have to deal with fast lanes and slow lanes imposed by whichever gatekeeper they sign up with for service. The proposed FCC rule changes will allow ISPs to charge different content providers varying amounts based on tiers of service, rather than providing equal access to all as they are required to do now since they are regulated as public utilities.
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who began service on the Commission in 2012 and was confirmed by the Senate for an additional term in 2017.
When FCC Chairman Ajit Pai first proposed rolling back net neutrality rules early this year, Comcast said essentially “Trust us, we would never take full advantage of the regulatory opening to charge a premium for faster internet service.” As if anyone would believe them, particularly anyone who had any experience at all as a Comcast customer! Lately Comcast has walked back their earlier statement with some linguistic mumbo-jumbo that’s supposed to make people think they won’t be doing what they intend on doing when the time comes and they can get away with it, which will be to charge a premium for faster internet service and, as a bonus, no data caps! Comcast’s duplicity surprises no one, and their pleas for trust are laughable.
The best thing that can be hoped for by people who wish to keep a relatively open and inexpensive internet beyond December 14 is that the rule changes will be tied up in the courts for several years, and to some extent that will tie the grasping hands of some internet service providers who are eager to take advantage of the new rules to gouge content providers and customers. Beyond that, the best hope for a decisive, long term answer to the problem will have to come from Congress, which in the current environment does not appear possible, but may be so after a change in party dominance in Congress as a result of the 2018 election. The FCC needs to be more an enforcer of rules Congress makes, and less its own rule maker.
When it comes to net neutrality analogies, many people opt for the internet superhighway one where there may be fast lanes and slow lanes or, on a content neutral internet, all lanes are equal. Since it’s hard to bring in the gatekeepers who set the rules for the internet on that kind of analogy, it might be easier to think of net neutrality or non-neutrality as related to a toll plaza, where the gatekeepers, such as AT&T, Verizon, or Comcast, charge different amounts and cause varying delays to the vehicles attempting to pass through their gates.
On a net neutral superhighway, the gatekeepers at the toll plaza charge roughly the same amount to every vehicle and pass them all through with equal alacrity. On an internet superhighway that is not neutral and grants wide discretion to the gatekeepers at the toll plaza, toll charges vary a great deal from vehicle to vehicle, and the gatekeepers might also hold up certain vehicles, making them late to their destination.
The Great Belt Fixed Link toll plaza in Denmark. Different colored lights indicate different payment methods. Photo by heb.
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, after going through the motions of a public comment period through the summer on his proposed, Orwellian-named “Restoring Internet Freedom” gutting of the 2015 net neutrality rules, announced today that the FCC board of three Republicans and two Democrats will vote on rules changes on December 14. The fix is in, as it has been since early this year when Mr. Pai expressed his intention to overturn the 2015 rules, and there is little doubt how the majority will vote on December 14. It is still possible between now and then to bring enough public pressure to bear on Congress for that body to influence either the FCC board vote, which is not likely, or put in motion legislation to override FCC rules on rescinding net neutrality, which is the more likely outcome, if there is to be a positive one at all for neutrality advocates.
Regulation of internet access is too vital to leave up to the unelected five member board of a regulatory commission. The current FCC board has also recently demonstrated its irresponsibility to the country at large when it did away with rules preventing monopolization of local media markets by a single company, recklessly opening the gates to allow Sinclair Broadcasting to consolidate its control across the country.
In the 1974 film Blazing Saddles, directed by Mel Brooks, the citizens of Rock Ridge set up a toll booth to slow down the bad guys coming to destroy their town. Warning: foul language.
Congress could put an end to FCC favoritism toward big business by passing legislation, instead of allowing the FCC board to vote on rules after the formality of a meaningless public comment period, since the board Republicans will almost certainly vote against net neutrality despite the majority of public comments in favor of it. Congress is also beholden to big business, but at least it retains some ability to bend to the public will. As it stands now, after the December 14 vote the new rules will likely get challenged in court, and the legal struggle will eat up years, and all the while the internet gatekeepers will make fortunes extorting internet users who need to pass their toll booths.