from the only-took-3-years dept
You might recall that Biden’s first nominee to the FCC, Gigi Sohn, found her nomination torn apart after an industry-funded smear campaign successfully derailed the nomination. Sohn is an extremely competent and popular reformer, but a homophobic lobbying campaign by media and telecom giants (Comcast, News Corp.) falsely framed Sohn as a radical extremist, eroding her support in a corrupt Senate.
Last May the Biden administration tried again with the nomination of Anna Gomez, a widely well-regarded former NTIA official and Sprint lobbyist generally viewed as a “safer,” less controversial choice–given her lack of any history of policy reform or (gasp) outspoken consumer advocacy.
Not too surprisingly, Gomez has sailed through the Senate confirmation process without a hitch, grabbing Senate approval on Thursday with a 55-43 vote. The comically overdue confirmation gives Biden an FCC voting majority for the first time in 7 years (for those playing along at home, that’s the better part of the last decade that the nation’s top media and telecom regulator has been sidelined by lobbying influence).
The question now becomes: what will the Biden FCC do with it?
Verizon, AT&T and Comcast all quickly applauded the nomination (something they generally don’t do for nominees they feel will threaten their power). Consumer activist groups like Fight For the Future were happy to see the FCC finally have a voting majority, but urged the FCC to act quickly on popular consumer rights issues like the restoration of net neutrality:
The FCC can’t afford to waste a single second. Now that the agency has a full slate of commissioners, they should move immediately to reverse Trump’s disastrous repeal of net neutrality and reinstate basic oversight of telecom monopolies. Restoring Title II net neutrality in full should be a given. But there is so much more that the FCC can and should be doing to close the digital divide and protect human rights and free expression.
There’s plenty an energetic and strategically competent Biden FCC could do. It could quickly restore net neutrality rules designed to keep regional monopolies from abusing their market power. It could restore media consolidation limits gleefully stripped away by the Trump FCC. It could challenge monopoly power by supporting community-owned broadband networks, cooperatives, and city-owned broadband utilities. It could finally pursue the long sought after wrist slap penalties against wireless companies for collecting and abusing your daily location data.
But outside of that last one, I think it’s probably wise to temper any enthusiasm.
Neither Gomez or existing FCC Commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel or Geoffrey Starks will ever be mistaken for serious reformers. None of them have much (any) history when it comes to rocking the boat. They’re the kind of FCC nominees that can survive a corrupt Senate confirmation process. Namely, well regarded but disruption-averse professionals, extremely unlikely to piss of industry giants lest it compromise future career opportunities.
I suspect this FCC will forget completely about restoring media consolidation limits (they’ve yet to even mention it). I’d also suspect that while they will revisit net neutrality in some form (assuming they don’t run out of time given the looming Presidential election), I’d wager the proposal they come up with will be a bit hollow and performative, likely falling short of full Title II reclassification of ISPs as common carriers.
While it’s true she’s been limited by a lack of a voting majority, Rosenworcel’s tenure so far has been marked by well-intentioned but ultimately somewhat hollow policy initiatives. I’d expect any revisiting of net neutrality to follow suit. Something that sounds like a full restoration of the 2015 net neutrality rules, but lacking when it comes to the legal fine print.
The biggest problem with U.S. broadband is unchecked regional monopolization, limited competition, and the corruption that protects it. The Trump FCC was a mindless rubber stamp on this front. Democrats are often better on the issue, but not only has the Rosenworcel FCC shown no interest in directly attacking monopoly power, I’ve yet to even see any of them even mention the problem exists.
By and large, these kinds of telecom regulators like to issue ambiguous platitudes about their dedication to “bridging the digital divide,” but when it comes to directly confronting the regional monopolies responsible for high broadband prices, spotty coverage, slow speeds, obvious fraud and comically horrible customer service, they’re usually inclined to beat around the bush.
Federal leadership has been so lacking on broadband policy and consumer protection, most of the fights have long since shifted to the state and local level, where real reformers still actually exist. As the rightward lurching Supreme Court further erodes federal regulatory authority, I’d expect that trend to continue.
That’s not to say the Biden FCC can’t or won’t do good things. There’s a lot of work left to do fixing the FCC’s dreadful broadband maps as $42.5 billion in infrastructure bill broadband subsidies start to flow. There’s plenty of other everyday, non-controversial activities related to engineering reviews and spectrum management the FCC will continue to semi-competently conduct.
But when it comes to real broadband policy reform, tough consumer protection, or a meaningful assault on monopoly power, I really wouldn’t hold your breath. There was a reason the industry pulled out all the stops to undermine Sohn, and there’s a reason they didn’t engage in the same behavior with Gomez. That said, I’ve been wrong before (see: Tom Wheeler), and with any luck we’ll be surprised again.