The Federal Communications Commission is arguably the federal government’s least-loved and geekiest body. 30 seconds of talk about rural broadband deployments and spectrum allocation is enough to send most people running from the room. But don’t be fooled: the FCC wields a huge amount of power over one of the nation’s most critical pieces of infrastructure, and right now, it’s a mess.
The hot-topic issue in the FCC is net neutrality. We’re not going to try and rehash the argument right now, but in a nutshell, Trump-appointed commissioner Ajit Pai is moving to roll back rules that allow the FCC to enforce net neutrality rules on internet service providers. Net neutrality is bad for the bottom line of internet providers, since it prevents them from using the regional monopoly power that they have to rip off customers.
Pai has given lip service to being in favor of net neutrality — he wants a gentleman’s agreement with the ISPs to uphold the “spirit” of net neutrality — but he’s working to dismantle the framework that allows the FCC to make and enforce rules to protect net neutrality. Pai, a former Verizon lawyer, claims (falsely) that net neutrality hurts investment by ISPs, and that the magic free hand of capitalism will protect consumers anyway (it won’t).
But the FCC’s anti-consumer agenda doesn’t end at net neutrality. In recent days, the commission has considered redefining “high-speed” broadband at a lower speed — 10Mbps, to be specific, down from the 25Mbps it’s currently at. Doing so would overnight make the US’s internet market look a lot better.
Right now, 80% of Americans have only one option for high-speed broadband at home, assuming they have any choice at all. That’s because for most people, the only high-speed option is the cable network, and as you well know, most people don’t have a choice of cable provider.
But alongside the cable line running into your house, there’s also normally a copper telephone line. It’s possible to get ADSL internet speeds of up to 10Mbps over a phone line, which means that if you redefine “high-speed” as 10Mbps, many more Americans will overnight get a second option for high-speed internet.
Expect President Trump to crow about how more Americans than ever before have access to high-speed internet in the coming days.
Then, there’s the FCC’s new advisory panel. As The Daily Beast notes, Pai has filled the 30-person Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) with 28 reps from telecoms companies, and just two from local cities. The committee was supposed to work out how cities and companies can work together best to deploy high-speed wireless internet; instead, it will likely be a list of telecoms industry wishes that the FCC will use its power to push through local government.
This isn’t how it’s supposed to work. Without wanting to wave the hammer and sickle while singing Les Mis, internet service providers are using valuable public resources — our roads, airwaves, and federal subsidies — to provide a valuable service. The FCC is supposed to regulate those services and ensure that our scarce resources are being used optimally, not work out how to best maximise profits for a handful of gargantuan corporations. You can guess which the current FCC is doing.