Biden Executive Order Disrupts Hot DC Trend Of Pretending 'Big Telecom' Doesn't Exist
from the do-not-pass-go,-do-not-collect-$200 dept
We’ve been submerged in kind of a bizarre asymmetrical tech policy paradigm over the last few years, in which “big tech” is viewed as the absolute root of all evil requiring all manner of hand-wringing and antitrust/regulatory reform. At the same time, policy leaders have simply forgotten that heavily monopolized internet-adjacent sectors like “big telecom” even exist, giving them cover to gut regulatory oversight, consumer protections, and media consolidation rules. Telecom (AT&T) and media (Rupert Murdoch) giants have successfully exploited legitimate public anger at big tech to encourage this kind of lopsided policy thinking.
This week this policy myopia shifted back to baseline a bit with Biden’s new executive order focused on shoring up competition issues. According to the EO fact sheet, the order pushes more than 72 different initiatives across a dozen federal agencies, including the FCC and telecom. Mike covered the not telco portions, which will be covered in this post. Most notable (for telecom, anyway) is that the order nudges the FCC to restore net neutrality rules:
We’ve noted more than a few times how the Trump/Pai net neutrality repeal didn’t just kill “net neutrality rules.” It gutted much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority, limiting its ability to police fairly consistent telecom sector billing fraud and other bad behavior. It also attempted to ban states from filling that consumer protection void. It was effectively a giant wishlist cooked up by telecom monopolies like AT&T, based entirely on bullshit justifications, and propped up by fabricated public support. Despite this, the whole thing was dressed up as “serious policy” by press and policy wonks who should have known better.
In addition to the restoration of net neutrality, the Biden EO also takes several other steps to shore up telecom issues. Among them is urging the FCC to stop telecom giants from creating block-by-block broadband monopolies via exclusive landlord arrangements. The FCC passed rules prohibiting this back in 2007, but they’re so filled with loopholes that telecom giants have been allowed to tap dance around them for years now (Susan Crawford wrote an essential primer on this problem for Wired a few years back).
A not insubstantial portion of the EO involves urging government agencies to simply do their jobs. Like the antitrust enforcers at the DOJ and FCC, who under both administrations are often little more than mindless rubber stamps for problematic job- and competition-eroding megadeals (see: the entirety of US telecom history since 1990). Simply leveraging more scrutiny to the often illusory benefits of endless megadeals would go a long way in shoring up both regulation and this whole “antitrust reform” so popular with the kids these days.
Other aspects of the EO related to telecom are more specific, like requiring that the FCC restore plans (also scuttled during the Ajit Pai era) requiring a sort of nutrition label for broadband, making ISPs disclose hidden fees, throttling, caps, or other restrictions on your broadband line (aka transparency). The order also urges the FCC to collect more data on broadband pricing, something it historically (at telecom lobbyist behest) hasn’t been keen on doing for what should be obvious reasons.
Most of these proposals are common sense, while others restore a lot of the FCC consumer protection authority and policies telecom giants stripped away in a parade of fraud and dodgy bullshit during the Ajit Pai era. But many of them require a fully staffed FCC and permanent agency boss to actually implement, something the Biden administration has been in no rush to provide, much to the annoyance of consumer groups. There’s a lot of ground to cover between what’s in the executive order and actual implementation, and it’s going to require an FCC with some real backbone to accomplish most of it.
Still, much to AT&T and Comcast’s chagrin, the Biden EO makes it clear that the problems created by big telecom haven’t been entirely forgotten, however much these regional monopolies would prefer policy conversations to remain myopically fixated on big tech and big tech alone.