FCC Begins Weakening The Definition Of Quality Broadband Deployment To Aid Lazy, Uncompetitive ISPs
from the It's-not-a-problem-if-we-say-so dept
You may be shocked to learn this, but like most U.S. regulatory agencies, the FCC’s top Commissioner spots are occassionally staffed by individuals that spend a bit too much time focused on protecting the interests of giant, incumbent, legacy companies (usually before they move on to think tanks, consultant gigs, or law firm policy work financed and steered by those same companies). In the telecom market these folks usually share some fairly consistent, telltale characteristics. One, they’re usually comically incapable of admitting that there’s a lack of competition in the broadband market.
Two, they go to great, sophisticated lengths — usually via the help of economists hired for this precise purpose — to obfuscate, modify, and twist data until it shows that broadband competition is everywhere and the market is functioning perfectly. After all, if the data shows that there’s no longer a problem — you can justify your complete and total apathy toward doing anything about it.
We’ve seen this cycle play out time and time again, and it’s a major reason most of us have shitty broadband. Under former FCC boss Michael Powell (now shockingly the head lobbyist for the entire cable industry), the FCC repeatedly proclaimed that the broadband industry was so competitive, we didn’t need rules, regulations, or consumer protections governing their behavior. And when anyone provided evidence that existing providers like Comcast were little more than walking shitshows, Powell would consistently insist that these complaints were utterly hallucinated.
This sort of behavior continued for a while under Obama-era FCC boss Julius Genachowski. But his successor, Tom Wheeler shocked a few people by actually acknowledging the industry wasn’t competitive. Wheeler went so far as to raise the base definition of broadband to a more modern 25 Mbps, a decision the industry whined incessantly over. Why? By raising the bar, Wheeler was able to highlight how two-thirds of the country only have the choice of one broadband provider at current generation speeds.
But with Ajit Pai now in charge at the FCC, we’ve once again returned to the regulatory policy of burying your head firmly in the sand to the express benefit of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon. In addition to Pai’s frontal assault on net neutrality, erosion of broadband programs for the poor, protection of prison phone monopolies, derailing of consumer broadband privacy standards and his protection of the cable industry’s set top box monopoly , Pai has begun taking steps to lower the bar when it comes to determining whether or not the country is being adequately connected.
Under the Telecommunications Act, the FCC is required by law to track broadband deployment and competition and — if things aren’t up to snuff — the agency is mandated to “take immediate action to accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.” But if you fiddle with how precisely broadband penetration and competition is measured, you can avoid having to do, you know, work to improve things. Enter Ajit Pai, whose agency this week quietly began fiddling with these determinations to the benefit of industry:
“But with Republican Ajit Pai now in charge, the FCC seems poised to change that policy by declaring that mobile broadband with speeds of 10Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream is all one needs. In doing so, the FCC could conclude that broadband is already being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion, and thus the commission could take fewer steps to promote deployment and competition.
Of course determining that an area has healthy and competitive broadband if a wireless provider can offer 10 Mbps is a major gift to incumbent ISPs. AT&T and Verizon have been working tirelessly to gut rules requiring they continue to provide cheaper, more reliable fixed-line broadband to rural areas and many less affluent cities, while also wiggling out of fiber upgrade obligations in countless markets. But wireless connections are significantly more expensive and less reliable, and in many smaller and more rural cities won’t be a suitable fixed line replacement for a decade or more.
And while AT&T and Verizon’s own data will insist that they provide 10 Mbps wireless to pretty much everywhere already, if you’ve ever driven across the nation with work to do you can probably attest to the fact this uniform coverage isn’t real. And because the FCC is more concerned about pleasing incumbent broadband providers than actually beefing up competition for consumers, they’re not going to be running out anytime soon to do field tests and fact check wireless carrier data proclaiming 10 Mbps is sprouting up everywhere like weeds.
No, the FCC’s goal here is to technically lower the standard definition of quality broadband from 25 Mbps down, 4 Mbps to, to 10 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up. By doing this, Pai and friends can simply declare the broadband industry ultra-competitive, justifying their failure to actually do anything about the obvious fact that’s simply not true. Of course it’s not being explained that way in the agency’s related notice of inquiry (pdf), the proposal couched under the pretense that we’re simply modernizing the way the FCC operates — or imposing new baseline wireless standards.
If you haven’t carefully watched these ISPs and revolving regulators work tirelessly at protecting their uncompetitive empire for two decades, you might be inclined to believe that line of bullshit. But what the FCC’s actually doing here is really quite simple: they’re fucking with the math and lowering the bar to ankle height as a gift to the nation’s lumbering, uncompetitive duopolies — who’d like it very much if we left the existing, embarrassing status quo well enough alone.