from the you're-not-helping dept
Back in March, the Trump FCC put on a big show about a new “Keep America Connected Pledge” to help broadband users during COVID. In it, the FCC proudly proclaimed that it had gotten hundreds of ISPs to suspend usage caps and late fees, and agree to not disconnect users who couldn’t pay for essential broadband service during a pandemic. The problem: the 60 day pledge was entirely voluntary, temporary, and because the FCC just got done obliterating its consumer protection authority over ISPs at lobbyist behest (as part of its net neutrality repeal), was impossible to actually enforce. It was regulatory theater.
The rather meaningless pledge has since expired despite the pandemic only getting worse. And because this FCC doesn’t actually care about consumer protection (it literally doesn’t even collect data on who is getting kicked offline for nonpayment during a plague), many ISPs simply ignored the pledge, and kicked users offline anyway; even disabled Americans who were told repeatedly by their ISPs that they wouldn’t be booted offline for nonpayment during the crisis. Meanwhile, most ISPs have also restored their bullshit, arbitrary usage caps, making them a pretty additional penny during a crisis.
This week, Kelcee Griffis did an even deeper dive into the theatrical nature of the FCC’s COVID consumer efforts. She obtained 3,000 complaints submitted to the FCC between June and August, and found that in 550 cases, consumers say they were kicked offline or faced late fees despite repeated promises from providers that they wouldn’t do that:
“In some instances, customers begged the providers to work out a way to keep them connected, citing relatives who recently died or were hospitalized with the coronavirus, or budget constraints due to pandemic-related layoffs. Others reported they struggled to keep their small businesses afloat amid nationwide closures and stay-at-home orders, saying ISPs only added to their woes.”
In many cases, consumers argued that they were actually worse off after getting ISP “help” than they had been if they hadn’t done anything at all:
“Customers in New York, Arizona and Pennsylvania said ISPs promised extended or suspended data caps but did not inform them when they must start paying again for the increased capacity, resulting in bills that ranged from about $200 to $600.
A Mesa, Arizona, customer even expressed regret that they accepted help from Cox Communications.
“Now that the [$30 monthly] COVID discount is gone, I have a bill that is $30 higher than it was six months ago,” the customer wrote in late July. “That is unreasonable to me. I would have been better off not having the COVID discount since it appears to me they off-set the discount by increasing the fees for the services I had.”
Unless you’re one of a surprisingly large contingent of folks that thinks kissing AT&T’s, Comcast’s, and Verizon’s asses is helpful and serious adult policy, none of this should be particularly surprising. The FCC basically self-immolated at lobbyist behest, leaving it without the authority to do much during a major health and economic crisis. Even the things the FCC could be doing — like actually tracking what struggling Americans are getting kicked offline — it’s simply not doing. Instead, it engaged in regulatory theater designed to make it look as if having crippled regulators during a crisis isn’t a bad thing.
It’s all part of a deep ideological delusion that exists in many corners and is propped up by a massive industry of telecom-linked monopoly apologists. Folks who would have you believe that if you mindlessly pander to natural monopolies, freeing them from “burdensome regulations” (read: absolutely anything that could help real people, markets, or competitors at the cost of monopoly revenues) it somehow results in near-Utopian outcomes. In reality, with neither competition nor adult oversight to constrain them, natural monopolies inevitably just double down on the same bad behavior.
There’s literally forty years of history making this point abundantly clear, yet the U.S. seems utterly intent on learning absolutely nothing from history or experience.