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Regulation - What is it Good For?

Congressional Push for a National Broadband Strategy

In August, a bill was passed through to the Committee for Commerce, Science, and Transportation to align the federal government’s efforts related to broadband. The bill was co-sponsored by Senators Roger Wicker, R-Mississippi, Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, and Representatives Tim Walberg, R-Michigan., and Peter Welch, D-Vermont.

The Bill, S-4767 is titled the Proper Leadership to Align Networks (PLAN) for Broadband Act. The legislation is based upon a report earlier this year from the Government Accountability Office that determined that federal broadband efforts are fragmented and overlapping. The bill proposes that the President develop a national broadband strategy to better align the federal broadband effort.

There is no question that national broadband policy is fragmented. We have an FCC which is ostensibly in charge of broadband policy but which essentially washed its hand of broadband regulation under past Chairman Ajit Pai. The FCC has been in charge for years of tracking the state of broadband in the country and completely botched that task through an inadequate mapping process that allowed ISPs to report whatever they wanted about broadband coverage. For much of the last few decades, the feeling in DC is that the FCC has been in the pocket of the giant ISPs the agency is supposed to be regulating.

Congress gave responsibility for the giant BEADs grant program to the NTIA, largely due to the fact that Congress didn’t trust the FCC to administer the grant program. But the NTIA doesn’t have a lot of authority outside of the grant program. When the BEAD grants are behind us, the NTIA will fade into obscurity again in terms of national broadband policy.

The latecomer to the game is the FTC. The FCC handed some authority to the FTC when it abandoned broadband regulation. But the FTC mostly only prosecutes individual ISPs for bad behavior and has no authority to impose any regulation on all ISPs.

This bill is asking the Executive branch to take a shot at fixing federal broadband dysfunction through the creation of a broadband plan. I guess this plan would be aimed at discussing how to put broadband regulation back together again to have a cohesive federal policy. If you’ve read my blog for years, you know how I feel about broadband plans. They are only as good as any follow-through on the recommendations made. The decade-old national broadband plan was as near as you could get to a total bust – not because it didn’t include good recommendations, but because it was put on the shelf and quickly forgotten.

It’s hard to think that a new broadband plan, even one coming from this legislation, would fare any better than the last one. It will likely be a document with a few good ideas – but ideas that are softened to appease the many parties with input to the plan. It’s hard to imagine a new federal broadband plan going anywhere but on the shelf, as in the past.

I find it almost humorous that Congress would ask the White House to come up with the plan on how to fix the national broadband administration and regulation. The White House has almost zero power to implement any ideas the plan might suggest.

The one government entity that can create a coherent broadband plan is Congress. Congress writes the rules that direct how the FCC operates and they could change the direction of the FCC overnight. Congress is the one who gave the NTIA the strong current role in setting national broadband policy through the grant process and could expand that role if desired.

If Congress wants a coherent broadband policy, it needs to do nothing more than go into a room and write it. This Act is a way for Congress to pretend to be addressing broadband without actually doing so. If nothing happens after the creation of a newly written broadband plan, Congress can blame the White House.

The reality is that there are not enough votes in Congress to pass a new Telecommunications Act, which is what is needed to put national telecom policy back on track. There has obviously not been enough votes over the last decade to make any drastic changes to telecom policy. The large ISPs have bought enough influence in both parties to sidetrack any attempt by the federal government to try to regain the reins of broadband policy.

There is no telling if this particular legislation has enough legs to get to a floor vote – but it’s the kind of legislation that could garner enough votes from both parties to pass since the outcome threatens nobody.

3 replies on “Congressional Push for a National Broadband Strategy”

Fragmented! Absolutely. And in addition, incomplete. For a whole variety of reasons the policies don’t address the mostly legal challenges of providing adequate broadband in cities and towns. If anything, the efforts and monies of the last dozen years are creating a new digital divide: cities and towns with barely adequate service (DSL or cable) surrounding by rural areas with gigabit fibre. Many rural communities are already struggling and this does not help.

Given the differences in states, a national plan is going to have to be so unspecific as to be purely aspirational. Not a bad thing. Just not sure it’s helpful. And the Big Guys would be all over a national plan anyway to make sure the money is steered away from community driven solutions (including public networks) to continue to line the pockets of those same mega isps that got us into this mess.

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