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.
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.
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.