FCC Moves To Gut Rules Protecting Broadband Users Telcos No Longer Want
from the ill-communication dept
As AT&T and Verizon shift their focus from fixed-line broadband to the more sexy world of Millennial advertising (often quite poorly), they’ve effectively decided to hang up on millions of unwanted DSL users they refuse to upgrade and no longer want. This has often involved imposing relentless rate hikes on service speeds straight out of 2003, or in many cases simply refusing to repair these lines. They’ve also convinced state after state that if they gut consumer protections keeping these lines intact, better, faster broadband connections will miraculously spring from the sidewalks.
AT&T and Verizon argue that state and federal guidelines on this front are just outdated regulations preventing them from building the next-generation networks of tomorrow. Fiber is more reliable and wireless is more flexible, they argue, making older lines irrelevant. That, however, ignores these companies’ refusal to actually fully deploy fiber, the fact that pricey & capped wireless isn’t a suitable replacement for unlimited DSL, that these lines were taxpayer subsidized, or that many of these DSL and POTS (plain old telephone service) services are still very much in use by the elderly and under-served.
In reality, this “IP transition” (as AT&T execs like to call it) is having a very real, very negative impact on broadband markets. The biggest impact being that with telcos refusing to upgrade their DSL networks at any scale, cable companies are running away with a growing fixed-line broadband monopoly in many parts of the country. That means higher prices, worse customer service, and the kind of punitive and arbitrary usage caps only made possible by a lack of competition.
Again though, if you ask AT&T and Verizon, none of this is a big deal because existing wireless services are perfectly suitable replacement for these fixed-line connections. But as people found out when Verizon refused to upgrade DSL lines in the wake of Hurricane Sandy, that’s simply not the case. Wireless is often significantly more expensive, frequently capped (especially in rural areas), and often hard to get in many rural, tree-happy markets. Fifth-gen wireless may someday be a suitable replacement depending on cost, but for rural markets that future is a decade or more away.
So a few years back the FCC under Tom Wheeler crafted a set of fairly basic “functional tests” (pdf) intended to prevent telcos from pulling copper-based phone and broadband service without ensuring there’s a comparable replacement. The goal: to ensure that services that rely on traditional DSL and POTS still work, and that competitors that service customers over these lines could still access them. Not too surprisingly, telcos have been lobbying the government to gut this guidance. Also unsurprisingly, current FCC boss Ajit Pai has been quick to help them do just that:
“The Federal Communications Commission will vote Thursday on a plan that, according to Chairman Ajit Pai, will strip away regulations that prevent telcos from upgrading their networks.
But in doing so, the Republican-controlled FCC plans to eliminate a requirement that telcos provide Americans with service at least as good as the old copper networks that provide phone service and DSL Internet. The requirement relates to phone service but has an impact on broadband because the two services use the same networks.
While it should be fairly clear that this is yet another gift to the nation’s telecom duopolies, as with its net neutrality, media consolidation, and other recent policy 180s, the FCC is engaging in some tap-dance hyperbole to try and deny this is what they’re doing:
The FCC press office has been much different since @AjitPaiFCC took over. When I reported that the FCC is letting carriers turn off copper networks without offering adequate replacements, they were extremely evasive about what they're actually repealing.
— The real Jon Brodkin (@jbrodkin) November 15, 2017
More concisely, the FCC’s existing “functional test” for carriers seeking to abandon DSL networks requires they prove that any replacement service is just as good as the services they’re eliminating. Since these carriers know wireless is often more expensive and often unavailable, and really don’t want to extend fiber into these areas (despite receiving countless billions to do so) they want those restrictions eliminated. It doesn’t matter if these lines were paid by taxpayers and are very much still in use; they’re focused on making money in mobile advertising.
To tap dance around these issues, Pai’s proposal, misleadingly-titled “Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment (pdf),” doesn’t technically get rid of the guidance, but weakens it to the point of being effectively useless, as consumer groups like Public Knowledge and the NAACP make clear:
“Under current rules, an incumbent carrier cannot discontinue, reduce, or impair service unless there is a replacement service that is as good as the discontinued service. This is called the Functional Test. The FCC’s order will now interpret “service” to include a carrier’s tariff. A tariff is a very basic description of what a carrier offers and at what rate. This means the Commission’s remaining notice requirements will only apply to basic services, but will not include 911 services, ensure network reliability, or interconnection with devices consumers use such as medical monitors, alarm systems, fax and credit card machines, and equipment for people who are hearing impaired. In some cases, the sound of a dial tone may constitute service under the tariff test and therefore not even trigger a public comment and review.”
Again this is all very wonky, but a transition away from these taxpayer-subsidized fixed copper lines without ensuring there are reliable (or frankly any) alternatives will have a profound negative impact on your current cable broadband bill and service, while making it harder for less sexy markets to get quality broadband connections (already a significant problem we seem intent on ignoring). And again, Trump’s FCC is pushing a telco wishlist policy they know full well will hurt consumers and the health of the nation’s telecom infrastructure, while professing they’re doing the exact opposite.