Since I have been in the industry there have been fourteen different Chairmen at the FCC. And during that time those have been split pretty evenly between democrats and republicans. We had Chairmen who had the reputation of leaning towards the public such as Reed Hundt and those that have favored the large businesses in the industry like Michael Powell. But you can find FCC decisions under each of Chairman that are in favor of the public or in favor of carriers, radio and television stations that the FCC regulates.
When you read the press about the current FCC (the Tom Wheeler FCC) the public impression is that it is pro-competition and pro-public. And there are plenty of rulings that back that up such as:
- Net neutrality that regulates broadband ISPs and stops them from various practices that would restrict internet choice.
- The current proposal for privacy rules that would let people restrict how ISPs can use their personal data.
- Opposed the Comcast / Time Warner merger.
- Reset the definition of broadband to 25 Mbps down / 3 Mbps up.
- The decision last year that said that restrictions on municipal broadband were anti-competitive.
- Opposed the AT&T / T-Mobile merger.
- Slashed prison calling rates to make it easier for families to stay in contact with those in prison.
Every one of these orders favors the public over the big companies that are regulated by the FCC. And there are other orders beyond this list. It’s not hard to see why this FCC has built the reputation of being pro-competition and anti-big business. And yet there are some major decisions that have been clearly in favor of the big companies regulated by the FCC.
Probably the biggest of these was the decision to award over $6 billion to the largest telcos to upgrade rural broadband. In establishing the Connect America fund the FCC gave almost all of the money to AT&T, Frontier, and CenturyLink and is only requiring them to upgrade rural broadband over a six year period to speeds of 10 Mbps / 1 Mbps. Those speeds are already becoming obsolete today and are the equivalent of somebody still sitting on a 1 Mbps DSL connection in 2005. Those speeds will provide Internet access, but a household on those speeds can’t do the same things that those of us with faster connections can do. And by the end of the six years these speeds are going to be completely out of date and inadequate.
And just last week this FCC put a rule in its Lifeline order that can be seen as nothing but a giveaway to cellular companies. The FCC is going to allow the $10 per month Lifeline subsidy for low income households to go to a cellular plan operating on the 3G network and with a monthly data cap of only ½ gigabit. The stated purpose of the Lifeline plan is to close the ‘homework gap’ and yet this one provision will probably end up sending a billion dollars a year to the cellular providers to pay for data plans that won’t meet the stated goal of the Lifeline program.
I remember when Chairman Wheeler was announced that industry insiders assumed that he was going to be in favor of the large carriers and cable companies since he had spent his career representing them. But he immediately quieted this criticism by making a number of pro-competitive and anti-carrier rulings.
When I look at the whole record I have a hard time seeing this FCC as activist. They certainly lean towards promoting things that a democratic White House would favor, as you would expect from a democratic FCC Chairman. But at the same time this FCC has handed billions of dollars to big carriers, and in doing so has greatly harmed the public. One can just imagine how far the Connect America Funds could have gone if that money was instead given out over six years as matching funds to build rural fiber systems. That much seed money would have brought a fiber solution to millions rather than stick them with another decade of poor DSL.
But in retrospect, when I look back at all of the various FCC Chairmen I can see that they have presided over decisions on both ends of the spectrum, and that probably comes with the job. The FCC is in charge of regulating very complex industries that change rapidly and which are controlled by large and powerful companies. I’m glad it’s not me sitting in that chair.