from the ill-communication dept
A few weeks back, the Trump FCC put on a big show about a new “Keep America Connected Pledge.” In it, the FCC proudly proclaimed that it had gotten hundreds of ISPs to 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 authority over ISPs at lobbyist behest (as part of its net neutrality repeal), it’s largely impossible to actually enforce.
Well, guess what:
“Some people who just lost their jobs because of the coronavirus pandemic are finding that they have lost something else ? phone and internet access. Across the country, suddenly unemployed residents are getting threatening notices, despite an initiative from the Federal Communications Commission that pledged last month to “Keep Americans Connected.”
Yes, gosh, who could have predicted many ISPs would simply ignore voluntary guidelines from an agency that repeatedly signals that there’s no real penalty for bad behavior under the Trump administration?
As a result, Sprint, Verizon, and others are all following normal procedure and shutting down accounts, even after informing their subscribers that this most certainly wouldn’t happen:
“It was a surprise when my line was suddenly disconnected, because I had actually got an email saying that during this time there would be no interruptions to phone service,” Aaron Joshua Perra, a hairstylist from Minneapolis, told NBC News. He had his Sprint phone shut off soon after his salon closed down last month. Sprint has since reconnected him.”
Meanwhile, over in Ohio, one disabled woman tells the tale of Charter Spectrum severing her service in the middle of a telemedicine appointment, again despite insisting this would not happen:
“The phone cut out in the middle of a telemedicine visit with her brother?s doctor. Joyce Manz had called Spectrum?s customer service a few days earlier and told a representative that she would pay the phone and internet bill as soon as her disability check arrived. It would be OK, she said she was assured.
?I was in tears when the phone cut out,? the 59-year-old Cleveland resident said. ?I started panicking.”
None of this this particularly surprising. The telecom industry has some of the worst customer service in the country, in large part thanks to a lack of competition or regulatory oversight. In short: they don’t really have much of an incentive to improve it. It’s a problem that’s particularly notable during disasters, when cable and broadband companies routinely try to immediately bill disaster victims for destroyed cable boxes — even if the customer just lost everything they owned. Not because ISPs are intentionally malicious, just because they don’t give fixing these systems priority. Again, because they don’t have to.
Mergers (growth for growth’s sake) don’t usually scale customer service to handle the growth because it’s not profitable to do so. Geographical monopolies also mean there’s no organic market pressure to do so either. Then you’ve got regulatory capture, and U.S. regulators and lawmakers that are all but owned by AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast on both the state and federal level. The current FCC can’t even acknowledge there’s a broadband competition problem, or that Americans pay more for broadband than most developed nations. So it’s a problem that’s not getting fixed.
Pai, like many of his ideological bent, operates under the illusion that if you eliminate oversight of telecom, miracles happen. Except that’s never been true: when you eliminate regulatory oversight of an uncompetitive sector dominated by politically powerful monopolies like Comcast, those monopolies simply double down on bad behavior. Market based, regulatory, or antitrust, there’s no U.S. incentive to improve because corrupt lawmakers and regulators have prioritized monopoly profits over everything else, gutting all systems of accountability, then dressed this blind greed up as some kind of sophisticated, elaborate ethos.
Like much of the Trump administration, the FCC’s reply to the complaints is largely just hubris and misdirection. In short, the agency implies that the only reason we’re seeing these complaints is because the FCC brought attention to the problem:
“Although we have received some disconnection complaints recently, we think it may reflect increased attention on the FCC’s work to keep people connected,” the spokesman said.”
That’s nonsense. One, because the FCC’s “solution” to this very real problem was a voluntary proposal ISPs know they don’t have to adhere to because the current FCC is a bunch of feckless pushovers. Two, because the FCC doesn’t even collect disconnection data. It’s so typically Trumpian: coddle monopolies, then pretend said coddling is resulting in wonderful outcomes that simply aren’t supported by factual reality. Rinse, wash, repeat.
The Trump FCC and its supporters claim the net neutrality repeal was a good thing because it “freed the industry from burdensome regulations.” But that’s fantasy. The repeal gutted the FCC’s authority to hold ISPs accountable for a wide variety of bad behaviors, including obvious billing fraud. It then shoveled any remaining authority to an FTC that lacks the resources or authority to police a sector rife with hugely unpopular regional monopolies. This accountability vacuum is the entire reason the industry lobbied for the plan. All of the claims about how the repeal increased “internet freedom” encouraged “unbridled innovation” or “stoked network investment” is a heaping pile of bullshit.
It’s corruption and regulatory capture, propped up by a mountain of bogus data, magical thinking, and telecom policy concepts debunked decades ago. And as former FCC staffer Gigi Sohn pointed out a few weeks back, that discarded agency authority sure would come in useful during a pandemic where broadband connections are now widely seen as an essential cornerstone of survivability.