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.
Legg’d like a man! and his fins like arms! Warm, o’ my troth! I do now let loose my opinion, hold it no longer: this is no fish, but an islander, that hath lately suffered by a thunderbolt. [Thunder.] Alas, the storm is come again! My best way is to creep under his gaberdine; there is no other shelter hereabout. Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows. I will here shroud till the dregs of the storm be past.
After Hurricane Irma tore through Florida earlier this month, some stories surfaced about Florida homeowners with solar panels being unable to use their power in the power grid outages that followed. Like many stories, there was some truth to them, but not the entire truth. Due to intensive lobbying from utility companies, Florida has enacted more obstacles to solar energy than most states, despite the fact that its weather and latitude make it better suited than most to take advantage of solar power. Homeowners with grid-tied solar panel arrays without batteries or transfer switches were legally barred from using their solar power while the grid in their area was off line.
That in itself is not unusual compared to arrangements in other states, and should not have been the source of stories making it sound as if Big Brother was interfering in individual initiative. The problem was the stories focused on that part while at the same time ignoring the real story of how Florida legislators have systematically made business difficult for the solar power industry. It is usual practice to ensure grid-tied systems have safety measures in place such as transfer switches to prevent power from back-feeding on the grid lines and endangering utility workers as they try to restore electrical service. In Florida, however, it appears legislation has been enacted at the behest of the major utilities to go beyond this to ensure that grid-tied solar power systems could not be legally used at any time during a general power outage.
The MGM Tower in Century City, Los Angeles, with solar array atop the adjoining parking garage. Photo by SolarWriter.
So there you are sitting in the dark after Hurricane Irma came through, just like all your neighbors, despite the array of solar panels on your roof. If you had disassociated your solar array from the grid entirely, you might have had better luck, though that would depend on local building codes or homeowners’ association rules. But since you tied into the grid with your solar array out of economic necessity and convenience, you may find out belatedly you signed a bargain with the devil. It’s like that natural gas powered fireplace which turns out to be useless when severe winter weather has cut off all services. Lighting candles won’t do enough to keep you warm.
The invidious corruption of the Florida utility laws, pervaded as they are by money from the Koch Brothers and entrenched fossil fuel interests, has had the unusual effect of forging an unlikely coalition of Tea Party conservatives and environmentalists, known as the “Green Tea” movement. The Tea Partiers are motivated by their distaste for government telling them how they can power their own homes, and tilting the playing field against them should they decide to sell surplus power on the open market, all because of the undue influence of utilities on the government. Environmentalists decry the same government corruption, but see it as unfairly limiting options for homeowners to leave a greener footprint, besides getting in the way of individual exercise of freedom.
The 1962 film Lawrence of Arabia, directed by David Lean and edited by Anne V. Coates, had many great moments, and this match cut from flame to sun is one of the most renowned.
Florida is an excellent test case for how we will cope with a warming climate, much as some people don’t want to look at it that way. Florida is hot and humid. Before the invention and widespread use of air conditioning in the twentieth century, Florida was lightly settled precisely because of its challenging climate. Since the middle of the twentieth century, Florida’s population has boomed. Florida’s energy use is 40% higher than the national average, largely because of the extensive use of air conditioning. Look at Puerto Rico now in the aftermath of Hurricane Maria. That could be Florida in a worst case scenario, which the state dodged as Hurricane Irma played out, as opposed to how an earlier forecast showed it might work out. Considering all that, it seems making solar power easier for all homeowners to implement rather than more difficult is the sensible option, no matter the arrangement of strange bedfellows.
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.