A broadband deployment advisory council created by the FCC to help shore up the nation’s broadband coverage gaps has been plagued by scandal, resignations, and accusations of telecom sector cronyism.
When he first took office, Trump's FCC boss Ajit Pai breathlessly and repeatedly claimed that one of his top priorities as agency head would be to shore up broadband availability gaps and close the digital divide.
“I look forward to working with my fellow Commissioners on this aggressive agenda to connect Americans on the wrong side of the digital divide, to allow broadcasters to innovate and better serve viewers, and to reduce unnecessary regulations,” Pai said in a Medium post early last year.
The problem: Pai’s policies routinely and aggressively undermine his stated goal of increasing affordable broadband availability.
For example, Pai’s frontal assault on net neutrality will drive up costs for consumers and businesses alike, giving entrenched telecom monopolies like Comcast greater anti-competitive power than ever before. Pai’s attacks on efforts to improve cable box competition and broadband programs for the poor also run in stark contrast to his stated goal.
Similarly, Pai has taken steps to make it easier for prison phone monopolies to overcharge inmate families, attempted to weaken broadband measurement metrics to obscure broadband availability gaps, and eliminated price caps designed to protect consumers from the country’s business broadband monopoly (which feeds everything from ATMs to cellular towers).
The chasm between what Pai does and what he says on this subject is hard to miss.
Last year Pai announced the creation of a broadband deployment advisory council (BDAC) he claimed would help the FCC ensure even “broadband deployment to all Americans." But outlets like the Daily Beast quickly found that the panel was a who’s who of telecom industry insiders tasked with propping up, not reforming, the dysfunctional broadband status quo.
The panel has been plagued by a steady stream of resignations ever since, by members who say the panel is little more than a hollow show pony designed to protect entrenched incumbents.
"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,” San Jose Mayor Sam Liccardo said in a letter announcing his resignation from the panel last January.
Liccardo stated that the agency had not accomplished a single item of note that would support the panel’s purported task: actually helping improve broadband coverage, availability and cost.
“...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,” he said. “Although we’ve adopted principles that pay lip service to that objective, not a single one of the draft recommendations attempts to meaningfully identify any new or significant resources to promote digital inclusion."
Pai has routinely backed ISP efforts to craft state laws (passed in 21 states) that ban towns and cities from building their own networks, even in instances where ISPs refuse to. Many of these state laws even ban public/private partnerships with companies like Google Fiber, often the only creative solution for broadband availability in areas where a return on investment is slow.
But because Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, ideologically opposes community broadband, he ensured his advisory panel didn’t include many advisors that specialize in creative alternatives to incumbent operations. And the few community broadband experts that were chosen to participate continue to resign, all telling a very similar story.
“As the BDAC’s process is scheduled to come to a close, it is clear that despite good faith efforts by both the staff and members involved, the membership structure and meeting format of the BDAC has skewed the drafting of the proposed recommendations towards industry priorities without regard for a true public-private partnership,” New York City CTO Miguel Gamiño Jr. said in his own resignation letter late last month.
“These circumstances give me no choice but to step away from this committee in order to direct the City’s energy and resources to alternative forums that provide more productive opportunities for achieving the kind of cooperative progress in advancing broadband deployment in the public interest,” Gamiño said.
The panel isn’t just apathetic to community broadband efforts, it actively pushes policies that undermines them, the Coalition for Local Internet Choice (CLIC) said in a letter of complaint this month.
“The audacity and impropriety of the process is clear from the fact that this entity, comprised primarily of corporate and carrier interests, is empowered by the Commission to develop model codes that could potentially impact every locality and state in the United States without any serious input from the communities it will most affect,” the group noted.
Pai’s panel this week also made headlines when one of its former chairs was arrested for a scam that bilked investors out of $250 million. According to the Wall Street Journal, Elizabeth Ann Pierce, who served as CEO of Quintillion Networks, was charged with wire fraud after investigators discovered a fiber deployment scam built largely upon forged contracts.
Pierce, who was charged with wire fraud and surrendered this week in New York to FBI agents, faces a maximum sentence of 20 years in prison. Pierce was was appointed by Pai last April to chair the committee, resigned from her role as Quintillion CEO last August , and stepped down from her chair position on the BDAC last September.
"The Commission was fortunate to have an excellent and deep pool of applicants to serve on the BDAC,” Chairman Pai noted when he appointed Pierce last year. Apparently, that well wasn’t quite deep enough.