from the the-clock-is-ticking dept
If you’ll recall, the Trump administration rushed the appointment of Nathan Simington to the FCC last year, despite Simington having absolutely no real experience or qualifications for the role. That’s because Simington was appointed for two other reasons. One being the idiotic (and utterly hypocritical if you tracked the net neutrality fights) effort by the Trump administration to try and have the FCC target Section 230, which was derailed by Trump’s election loss.
But the other purpose of Simington’s rush announcement was to ensure the FCC would be gridlocked at 2-2 commissioners. Like the FTC, the FCC is comprised of a 3-2 partisan makeup depending on who controls the White House. And while Biden could have easily appointed a new FCC Commissioner to break that gridlock, we’re now three months-plus into his Presidency and the Biden camp still hasn’t appointed a third Democratic Commissioner (and potential new FCC boss).
Without that majority, the FCC can’t reverse a lot of Trump era policies, like net neutrality. Or the telecom-lobbyist backed effort to effectively lobotomize the FCC’s consumer protection authority. And not too surprisingly, activists are starting to get a little punchy about the delay
“The Federal Communications Commission is deadlocked, and will remain so until the Biden administration nominates, and the Senate confirms, a fifth commissioner. But we desperately need a functional FCC now: Millions of people are without reliable Internet access in the midst of a pandemic, kids are sitting outside Taco Bell to do homework, and people need to access information about how to get a vaccine.”
On the one hand, some delay is understandable given the sheer volume of priorities on the administration’s plate. At the same time, as telecom policy wonk Harold Feld notes, the delay is effectively crippling the FCC’s ability to do its job during a pandemic that is clearly showcasing the essential nature of broadband. And the window broadband industry reform advocates are working with could be a very narrow one:
“That’s basically a year lost on the ability to move forward on anything remotely controversial, or starting major new initiatives. That’s huge, particularly if either the House or Senate (or both) flips in 2022. As I say, it’s understandable given the multiple crises and the catastrophic damage done by the Trump Administration to the basic infrastructure of governance. But even if it’s understandable, it’s a trade-off with costs that need to be appreciated.”
While vague, the Biden broadband plan is hitting most of the right notes with activists, given its heavy focus on community broadband efforts (and a strange concept known as “more competition”). But it’s going to have one hell of a time getting passed a heavily telecom-lobbied Congress. Meanwhile, the FCC, the one agency perfectly tailored to holding telecom monopolies accountable, is effectively being forced to sit on its hands and wait before it’s able to actually do its job and reverse Trump era policies focused largely on one thing: making AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast happy.
The lag in prioritizing the appointment of a new FCC head is just the latest indication of our myopic, imbalanced obsession with “big tech” as the only policy conversation worth having, while “big telecom” gets a free pass. While “big tech” gobbles up all the policy oxygen and sees endless calls for antitrust reform, “big telecom” continues to not only expand its massive broadband monopoly and vertically-integrated media empires, but increasingly mimic all the worst aspects of “big tech” as telecom giants increasingly push into online advertising.
“Big telecom” is every bit as problematic as “big tech” (in some ways worse given telecom’s physical monopoly over access itself and close alliance with law enforcement and intelligence) yet the sector continues to get DC policy attention that floats somewhere between kid gloves and outright apathy.