Tom Wheeler: Trump, GOP Plan To 'Modernize' The FCC A 'Fraud'
from the in-Comcast-we-trust dept
So we've noted a few times how former FCC boss Tom Wheeler surprised many of us (myself included) simply for basing his telecom policy decisions on actual facts. That doesn't sound like much, but for more than fifteen years, both parties had stocked the agency with a rotating crop of either sector apologists like Michael Powell (now the cable industry's top lobbyist) -- utterly incapable of even admitting the broadband industry had competition problems -- or wishy-washy folks like Julius Genachowski, who basically just told everybody what they wanted to hear, and just hoped things worked out for the best.
Wheeler wound up being a notably different animal for the FCC. He based many of his policy decisions on real-world data collected from actual customers (shocking!), repeatedly highlighted the lack of real broadband competition in many markets (blasphemy!), and, as evident on his shift toward Title II reclassification and net neutrality, actually changed his mind when confronted with evidence that challenged his world view (what insolence!).
Now that Wheeler's back in the private sector, he's unshackled himself somewhat, last week providing an interesting interview with Harvard Law Professor Susan Crawford. In it, Wheeler takes particular aim at Trump's new FCC pick Ajit Pai, noting the new FCC boss (who repeatedly complained that Wheeler left him out of key policy decisions) refused to even meet with him during the last year. Wheeler also chimes in on the subject of net neutrality, municipal broadband, and how ISPs like Comcast and AT&T have an almost nauseating amount of influence over state legislatures.
But the most important part has to do with Wheeler's take on the Trump administration's increasingly obvious plan to defund and defang the FCC as broadband watchdog. Because the industry and our new FCC boss lack the courage to just come out and say this, telecom sector lobbyists (and the various PR flacks, consultants, think tankers, and politicians paid to love them) have concocted a new narrative in which they claim they're simply "streamlining" or "modernizing" government by eliminating the FCC from the equation, and dumping all oversight of megacarriers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon into the lap of the FTC.
Wheeler, however, was quick to point out the real goal of such a shift:
In the Trump administration, people are talking about stripping regulatory power from the FCC, and essentially taking the agency apart (including moving jurisdiction over internet access to the Federal Trade Commission [FTC]). “Modernizing” the FCC is the lingo being used. What’s your thought about that?
It’s a fraud. The FTC doesn’t have rule-making authority. They’ve got enforcement authority and their enforcement authority is whether or not something is unfair or deceptive. And the FTC has to worry about everything from computer chips to bleach labeling. Of course, carriers want [telecom issues] to get lost in that morass. This was the strategy all along.
So it doesn’t surprise me that the Trump transition team — who were with the American Enterprise Institute and basically longtime supporters of this concept — comes in and says, “Oh, we oughta do away with this.” It makes no sense to get rid of an expert agency and to throw these issues to an agency with no rule-making power that has to compete with everything else that’s going on in the economy, and can only deal with unfair or deceptive practices.
Again, so it's clear, broadband ISPs want all oversight shifted to the FTC because they know the underfunded and overworked agency won't have the ability to actually enforce the rules currently on the books, much less craft new ones should they become necessary. With companies like Comcast facing less organic broadband market pressure than ever, less federal regulatory oversight than ever, and the ability to literally write state protectionist laws keeping your town and city from having any say over this dysfunction, you've got a disaster brewing for consumers and numerous business sectors alike.
To be clear, deregulation does help some industries -- especially those that naturally enjoy healthy competition. But with the amount of control large ISPs have over state legislatures, and the lack of competition in the last mile, the telecom sector is far from a free market. Undaunted by historical evidence of the folly of blind telecom deregulation, ISPs have long argued that if you just leave the industry completely alone, gigabit connections will miraculously sprout from sidewalk cracks and we'll all be living in a telecom utopia in no time. History has proven repeatedly this antiquated belief system is pure folly.
Just when it seemed like we were finally putting this dated fantasy in the rear-view mirror, in comes a brand new plan to effectively neuter the only regulatory agency to stand up to AT&T and Comcast in the last decade. Again, it will go something like this: first Pai and the new FCC will simply refuse to enforce the rules already on the books (net neutrality). From there, you can expect Comcast, AT&T and Verizon's Congressional allies to push for a new Communications Act rewrite that rolls back all of Wheeler's policy proposals and fits the FCC with a shiny new collar and chain.
Said Act will breathlessly profess to create jobs, increase broadband deployment, close the digital divide and finally solve net neutrality, but will do nothing of the sort. What it will actually do is contain ample loopholes ensuring that the FCC can never again actually hold massive broadband and media empires accountable to the public by cutting the agency off at the knees, in part by rolling back Wheeler's Title II classification, but also by shoveling consumer protection off to an FTC whose purview will be similarly constrained over the coming months and years.
The end result of this "modernization"? Less oversight than ever for industry giants AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and Charter. Given these companies' growing size, long and undeniable track record of anti-competitive behavior and outright fraud, what could possibly go wrong?