FCC boss Ajit Pai hopes that a hollow dedication to rural broadband will make Americans forget the agency sold them out on net neutrality.
Since taking office, Pai has routinely insisted that his top priority is closing the digital divide and improving broadband speed and availability. Unfortunately, for those stuck without adequate broadband, his actual policies often undermine this goal.
Since taking office, Pai has eroded programs that bring broadband to the poor, gutted media consolidation rules, helped dismantle broadband privacy protections, killed efforts to bring more competition to the cable box, rushed to the defense of prison monopoly price gouging, passed rules protecting business broadband monopolies, and gutted net neutrality.
And he’s only getting started.
As part of this dubious dedication to the underserved, Pai last year created something called the Broadband Deployment Advisory Council (BDAC). But shortly after creation, the council was soundly criticized for being a who’s who of incumbent ISPs, and for its refusal to include a fair share of consumer advocates or municipal broadband supporters among its advisors. “The FCC loaded the 30-member panel with corporate executives, trade groups and free-market scholars,” a Daily Beast report noted last year. “More than three out of four seats on the BDAC are filled by business-friendly representatives from the biggest wireless and cable companies such as AT&T, Comcast, Sprint, and TDS Telecom. Also appointed to the panel were broadband experts from conservative think tanks who have been critical of FCC regulations, such as the International Center for Law and Economics and the Mercatus Center at George Mason University." Such “experts” often obfuscate the fact they take money from the telecom sector to pollute public discourse on subjects ranging from net neutrality to community broadband. ISPs routinely hire these economists to massage data or spread false narratives (such as the claim that net neutrality severely hampered broadband deployment) on demand.
With the FCC’s broadband advisory panel rapidly approaching its one year anniversary, Pai recently took to Twitter to praise the panel’s work on shoring up broadband connectivity for the nation’s have nots. Pai’s claims that the panel was quickly solving the broadband connectivity crisis was the centerpiece of a speech given by the agency head last week.
“The BDAC’s work is critical to my top policy priority as FCC Chairman—closing the digital divide,” Pai declared. “I’ve long said that every American who wants to participate in the digital economy should be able to do so,” adding that the panel had been working tirelessly since March to develop numerous recommendations to solving the broadband availability problem.
But actual panel members contest Pai’s rosy assessment of the panel and its purpose.
One member of the panel, San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo, abruptly quit his position last week, claiming the panel’s only real purpose was to protect incumbent ISP business interests while paying empty lip service to broadband competition and better, cheaper service.
"It has become abundantly clear that despite the good intentions of several participants, the industry-heavy makeup of BDAC will simply relegate the body to being a vehicle for advancing the interests of the telecommunications industry over those of the public," Liccardo said in his resignation letter.
The overall goal is to frame net neutrality as a fringe issue favored by the Hollywood elite, while suggesting the FCC’s hard at work tackling the real problem: rural broadband availability
While Pai claimed the panel’s productivity strained FCC resources, Liccardo claims that the panel has yet to provide even one meaningful recommendation to help aid broadband consumers looking for better, cheaper broadband.
"After nine months of deliberation, negotiation, and discussion, we’ve made no progress toward a single proposal that will actually further the goal of equitable broadband deployment," Liccardo stated. "It’s obvious that this body is going to deliver to the industry what the industry wants,” the Mayor added.
When the BDAC does offer up recommendations, they often tend to reflect the industry’s interest in maintaining the broken status quo. For example, FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn recently complained that the panel’s new recommendations for states looking to improve broadband availability explicitly tries to hamstring community broadband networks, often the only creative solution available for many underserved communities.
Pai’s digital divide rhetoric is just one part of an overarching effort by Republicans to prevent net neutrality from being a hot-button issue during midterms. Consumer groups say the overall goal is to frame net neutrality as a fringe issue favored by the Hollywood elite, while suggesting the FCC’s hard at work tackling the real problem: rural broadband availability.
But again, there’s little to no indication that’s actually happening. Republican proposals to shore up the digital divide have proven hollow, providing no additional, actual funding for shoring up connectivity in underserved regions. Often the quest to bridge the digital divide is simply cover for proposals that work to strip away consumer protections even further.
“Chairman Pai announced in his first meeting to staff that he intended to focus on closing the rural digital divide. But all the steps he has taken so far do nothing to move the needle,” said Harold Feld, Senior VP of consumer advocacy firm Public Knowledge.
“Worse, a number of his proposals have actively made it harder to bring affordable service to rural areas,” Feld added. “Instead, Pai has focused entirely on his 2016 promise that if appointed Chairman he would take a ‘weed whacker’ to regulation, then claimed that by eliminating consumer protections, virtually eliminating review of mergers, and eliminating notice and reporting requirements will inevitably result in a surge of rural deployment.”
It should go without saying that the erosion of all meaningful state and federal oversight of one of the least-liked, least-competitive sectors in American industry isn’t likely to accomplish that goal. Bridging the digital divide and fixing the broken United States broadband market requires policies that actually increase competition in the sector. That competition, in turn, helps lower prices and reduces the incentive to engage in bad behavior (whether that’s a net neutrality violation or a total disregard for consumer privacy).
Since genuine competition would erode duopoly revenues, ISPs (and the lawmakers paid to love them) routinely go out of their way to ignore the fact that limited competition is even a problem, instead preferring the focus remain on utterly ambiguous efforts to solve a problem they refuse to coherently define—and have no serious intention of actually fixing.
Meanwhile, any proposed “solution” by industry tends to be entirely theatrical in nature. As should be made evident by Ajit Pai’s quest to pretend that blind fealty to Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon will somehow, finally, deliver the faster, cheaper broadband Americans have been clamoring for for the better part of the last generation.