Biden FCC, Like Trump FCC, Spends A Disproportionate Amount Of Time Hyperventilating About China
from the hyperventilation-as-a-distraction dept
To be clear: the Chinese government is a violent authoritarian mess, and making U.S. networks more resilient to Chinese attacks is an important thing. But U.S. telecom policy is bizarrely obsessed with China to the point where all other policies, especially any policies that might upset the nation’s powerful and entrenched telecom monopolies, are routinely put on the back burner.
Whether it’s our obsession with beating China to the “race to 5G,” or FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr’s obsession with banning a social media company he doesn’t even regulate, the FCC spends a lot of time obsessing about China… but literally no time talking about U.S. market failure caused by monopolies that have spent the last few decades dismantling market disruption and competition.
In fact, the Biden-controlled FCC is very similar to the Trump-controlled FCC on this front. A disproportionate amount of time is dedicated to hand wringing about China. Not because dealing with China is more important than every other policy issue the FCC addresses, but because talking tough about China is the politically safe choice for career politicians with future ambitions.
FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel is no exception. At a speech at the Center for Strategic & International Studies last week, Rosenworcel focused on hyping 5G (despite U.S. 5G being much slower and far more expensive than most developed nations) and making scary noises about the dastardly Chinese:
We are doing a lot—in fact, right now the agency is doing more to address network security than at
any point in its history. It’s a strategy to deter, defend, and develop: deter bad actors, defend
against untrusted vendors, and develop a market for trustworthy innovation. By doing this, we
are working to help improve communications security at home and shine as an example for the
rest of the world.
As far as speeches go, the speech is fine. Rosenworcel discusses working in much tighter coordination with intelligence and law enforcement to help secure U.S. networks. Which is, again, fine. But hyperventilating about China takes up the lion’s share of the agency’s time. And it’s often used as a shield to help distract the public and press from the U.S. government’s ongoing failures elsewhere.
For example, we’ve noted how Carr’s obsession with TikTok is a giant distraction from our ongoing failures on privacy legislation. And the fact the FCC has been an abject failure on consumer protection for going on 30 years. The U.S. broadband sector is dominated by predatory, politically powerful telecom monopolies that have similarly been abusing U.S. consumers for decades. For most of that time, telecom giants have effectively dictated the trajectory of nearly all FCC policies, and it shows.
You’d think the nation’s top telecom and media regulators would occasionally propose solutions to this problem, or occasionally acknowledge that monopolies exist. Not in the U.S., where Republican FCC Commissioners effectively side with the monopolies on any issue of note, and the Democratic Commissioners spend their time just… pretending that monopolization doesn’t exist.
Case in point: you’d be hard pressed to find a single instance during their tenure where Democratic FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel or Geoffrey Starks clearly acknowledge that monopolies are a major cause of the nation’s broadband problems. They’ll ambiguously complain about the “homework gap” or “digital divide,” but they’ll never directly criticize the companies actually responsible.
The FCC currently can’t do much of anything consumers want (like restoring net neutrality) because it lacks a functional voting majority. They lack a functioning voting majority because the telecom industry is waging a coordinated smear campaign against popular FCC nominee Gigi Sohn.
But despite Sohn having faced down a coordinated attack from industry for much of the last year, neither Rosenworcel or Sparks have provided a single instance of public defense of their future colleague. Then of course there’s Brendan Carr, who spends the lion’s share of his time on cable news proposing TikTok bans and pretending he cares about consumer privacy.
Crafting telecom policies to combat authoritarian security threats is good. But not at the cost of the agency’s consumer protection mission, which routinely sees a backseat because it’s a more treacherous road politically. And right now, our policy regulators have become a bit obsessive.
And… selective in what they discuss. The much hyped “race to 5G” wound up being more of a limp, as Chinese 5G is now not only far more widely available and faster than U.S. variants, but significantly less expensive (Chinese 5G plans can be had for as little as $10 a month). Some of that’s due to Chinese state control over the telecom sector, but some it’s courtesy of FCC policy failure (we didn’t stand up to monopolies, failed to make middle-band spectrum available, don’t protect consumers, etc.).
Even when the FCC takes action on China you’ll notice the solutions aren’t fully baked. TikTok bans do nothing, and the “race to 5G” was a notable dud. But the agency also made a big deal about ripping Chinese gear out of all U.S. networks, then flaked on helping smaller companies pay for it. So it’s not like obsessing over China is truly resulting in any remarkable or consistent policies.
The U.S. telecom sector is a picture perfect textbook example of the problems with natural monopolies and corruption, and how, when left unaddressed, both lead to sky-high prices, substandard service, spotty broadband, comically terrible customer service, and a parade of consumer and market harms.
Yet it often feels like regulators spend two-thirds of their time fixated on the other side of the planet when domestic markets are very much in need of some informed, courageous attention.