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As Pandemic Exposes US Broadband Failures, FCC Report Declares Everything Is Fine

from the rose-colored-glasses dept

42 million Americans lack access to any kind of broadband whatsoever -- more than double official FCC estimates. Millions more can't afford broadband because the monopolized US telecom sector suffers from a dire lack of competition in most markets. US telcos, bored with the slow rate of return, have effectively stopped upgrading their DSL networks across broad swaths of America, leaving cable giants like Comcast and Charter spectrum with a bigger monopoly than ever across wide swaths of America. And no, wireless 5G won't magically fix the problem due to patchy availability and high prices.

This is, to hear the FCC tell it, all going swimmingly.

By law (Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996) the FCC is required once a year to issue a report indicating whether quality broadband is being deployed on a "reasonable and timely basis." If not, the agency is supposed to, you know, actually do something about it. But every year like clockwork, the FCC issues the report ignoring all of the biggest problems in the telecom sector, to the obvious benefit of an industry eager to keep things precisely as they are: largely uncompetitive. Never will you see policy that improves competition, because the lack of competition isn't even acknowledged.

This year was no exception. The Trump FCC's latest report once again insists that broadband "is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion," so no shift from the status quo is necessary. And in a very Trumpian statement, FCC boss Ajit Pai congratulates himself for incredible leadership, while repeating the falsehood that his decision to take an axe to already fairly filmsy FCC oversight of the broken sector has somehow resulted in a massive wave of new investment:

"Under my leadership, the FCC's top priority is to close the digital divide, and I'm proud of the progress that we have made. Having grown up in rural Kansas, I have a deep commitment to expanding broadband to all corners of the country. That's why we've taken aggressive steps to remove regulatory barriers to broadband deployment and reform our Universal Service Fund programs."

For about the four-thousandth time, investment at major ISPs like Comcast and AT&T has dropped under Pai's "leadership," which has effectively consisted of rubber stamping AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and T-Mobile's every request. And Pai's version of "reforming" programs like the universal service fund (created by Reagan and expanded by Bush to provide a small subsidy to the poor) has involved trying to dismantle the program using shaky logic that the courts have rejected.

Much like Pai himself, the report goes to comic lengths to pretend US broadband isn't a broken market dominated by a handful of monopolies. It goes well out of its way to ignore the fact that Americans pay more for broadband than a long-list of other developed nations. It goes well out of its way to pretend that US broadband providers don't have the worst customer satisfaction ratings of any sector in America, a monumental feat. And it goes well out of its way to pretend that the overarching US policy of kissing the ass of companies like Comcast and AT&T is an effective, serious policy.

In a dissenting statement, FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel wasn't particularly impressed, calling her agency's own report "baffling":

"This report is baffling. We are in the middle of a pandemic. So much of modern life has migrated online. As a result, it has become painfully clear there are too many people in the United States who lack access to broadband. In fact, if this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big.

But you'll find no evidence acknowledging that in today's Broadband Progress Report from the Federal Communications Commission. Instead, you'll find a glowing assessment that all is well. According to this rosy report the nation's broadband efforts are all good. They are proceeding in a reasonable and timely fashion and they are reaching all Americans. This is just not right."

It's certainly not right, but it's not particularly baffling.

Major telecom providers are so politically powerful, they all but own the majority of state and federal legislators, to the point where they often literally write the law. As a result US telecom policy for the better part of 30 years has involved refusing to even acknowledge the sector's most basic problems. Try to find a moment where Ajit Pai even acknowledges that US broadband prices are high and the sector isn't particularly competitive. You won't find it. And you can't fix a problem you refuse to acknowledge and can't be bothered to accurately measure.

US telecom policy remains stuck in fantasy land where there is no problem to fix, a narrative propped up by an ocean of telecom industry think tankers, consultants, hired economists, and others who'll engage in mental gymnastics to insist there's absolutely no serious problems here. In reality, US policy priority involves protecting the revenues of giants like AT&T, who are too big to fail and bone-grafted to the country's intelligence surveillance apparatus. Companies we repeatedly throw tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors at in exchange for a myriad of empty promises.

Telecom giants and their allies have gone to comical lengths to justify regulatory capture and ignore the sector's biggest problems. With a pandemic clearly showing that broadband is an essential lifeline, that kind of denialism is going to be a lot harder to sell in the years to come.

Filed Under: ajit pai, broadband, digital divide, fcc


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  1. icon
    virusdetected (profile), 29 Apr 2020 @ 7:20am

    Just one piece of a much larger problem...

    Numerous Federal government agencies are no longer functional or performing any of the tasks related to their mission. Why should the FCC be any different. Long-time employees are disheartened by how their mission has become a political weapon.

    Based on conversations with former colleagues who are employed by our government, I've learned that pretty much everyone in many of the civilian-facing agencies is in a holding pattern; their leadership is in hiding, afraid to draw scrutiny from the Emperor.

    Some organizations are notably dysfunctional, e.g., FEMA, which is taking orders from the arrogant but incompetent son-in-law.

    The components of the DoD keep doing what they're supposed to do, although their mission is increasingly confused. My friends in the Intel community are discouraged; their top boss is a political hack and their efforts to alert the leadership to potential threats have been, and continue to be, ignored.

    Bottomline: it's no longer our government. He who has the gold makes the rules.


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