The White House this week unveiled a new executive order that will rein in anticompetitive behavior across numerous industries, including a mandate to restore telecom oversight stripped away during the Trump era.
According to a fact sheet circulated by the White House, the executive order includes 72 different initiatives across a dozen federal agencies aimed at boosting competition and reining in predatory monopolies. Several aspects of the order specifically target big telecom, including a provision urging the current FCC to restore net neutrality.
83 million Americans are stuck under a broadband monopoly, and millions more live under a duopoly usually consisting of a cable giant or apathetic telco. This lack of competition directly results in high prices, spotty coverage, slow speeds, and terrible customer service.
Under Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai, the government’s answer to these problems was to largely ignore them. Or make the problem worse by eliminating consumer protections, removing barriers to media consolidation, or rubber stamping harmful mergers that reduced competition even further.
The FCC’s 2015 net neutrality rules not only prevented telecom giants from abusing their power to give their own services an unfair market advantage (like imposing pointless broadband caps to make using streaming alternatives more expensive), but required ISPs to be clear about any throttling or other restrictions imposed on your broadband connection.
The rules were repealed in 2017 by Pai in a wave of controversy. Not only were the justifications to repeal the rules proven repeatedly false, the broadband industry was caught using fake and dead people to create the illusion of support for the extremely unpopular decision.
The repeal also eliminated much of the FCC’s consumer protection authority, while also banning states from stepping in and protecting consumers in the wake of federal apathy. Both decisions proved problematic during the subsequent pandemic, which highlighted the essential importance of broadband for employment, education, and health care.
By law the White House can’t directly tell an independent agency what to do, so the executive order “encourages” the FCC to take steps to restore not only net neutrality rules, but the FCC’s consumer protection authority under the Communications Act.
The order also urges both the DOJ and FTC to engage in greater scrutiny of megamergers that eliminate jobs and reduce overall sector competition. That didn’t happen during the Sprint T-Mobile merger review, approved before many officials had even reviewed the data.
The order also bans annoying early termination fees on telecom bills, and urges the FCC to restore efforts (also scuttled during the Trump administration) that would have required ISPs include a “nutrition label” on broadband connections, making it clear if your broadband line includes any network throttling, hidden fees, usage caps, or other limitations.
The executive order also takes aim at exclusive arrangements between many landlords and ISPs that effectively create block-by-block broadband monopolies. While the practice is technically banned under 2007 FCC rules, loopholes in the restrictions have allowed ISPs to tap dance around them for years.
“This impacts low-income and marginalized neighborhoods, because landlord-ISP arrangements can effectively block out broadband infrastructure expansion by new providers,” the administration said.
There’s one problem: most of the initiatives require that the Biden administration first appoint a full suite of agency commissioners and a permanent FCC boss. The fact this hasn’t happened nearly six months into Biden’s term has started to annoy consumer groups, who warn that the process of appointing and confirming a permanent agency head alone will take months.
In recent years problems in the heavily monopolized US telecom industry have been put on the back burner as the lion’s share of DC policy attention fixates on the problems created by big tech. But the executive order makes it clear that while perhaps not its top priority, the government hasn’t forgotten about the massive problems consistently created by big telecom.