Partisanship and the FCC

The current FCC has a clear bias towards the big cable companies, telcos and cellular companies. There is nothing particularly wrong with that since this FCC represents an administration that also is big-business oriented. Past FCC’s have clearly favored policies that reflected the administration in charge. For instance, the prior FCC under Tom Wheeler was pro-consumer in many ways and pushed things like net neutrality and privacy – issues that had the support of the administration but not of the giant ISPs.

However, in the last few decades the FCC has gotten a lot more partisan. It’s becoming rare to see a policy vote that doesn’t follow party lines. This isn’t true of everything and we see unanimous FCC Commissioner support for things like providing more spectrum for broadband. But FCC voting on any topic that has political overtones now seem to follow party lines.

The most recent example of the increased partisanship is evident with the release of this year’s 2018 Broadband Deployment Report to Congress. In that report Chairman Pai decided to take the stance that the state of broadband in the country is fine and needs no FCC intervention. The FCC is required to determine the state of broadband annually and report the statistics and its conclusions to Congress. More importantly, Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires that the FCC must take proactive steps to close any perceived gaps in broadband coverage.

In order to declare that the state of broadband in the country doesn’t require any further FCC action, Chairman Pai needed to come up with a narrative to support his conclusion. The argument he’s chosen to defend his position is a bit startling because by definition it can’t be true.

The new broadband report, released on February 9 concludes that “advanced telecommunications capability is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. . . This finding does not mean that all Americans now have broadband access. Rather, it means that we are back on the right track when it comes to deployment“. The kicker comes in when the report says that the FCC’s data from ISPs “does not yet reflect the beneficial effects of the Commission’s actions in 2017,” such as “ending the adverse impact on investment caused by the [2015 Net Neutrality] Order. . . For instance, several companies, including AT&T, Verizon, Frontier, and Alaska Communications either commenced or announced new deployments in 2017.

In effect, the FCC now says that broadband deployment is back on track due to its December 2017 net neutrality repeal. But the ‘facts’ it cites don’t support its argument. First, any broadband improvements made by the cited telcos in 2017 would have been authorized and started in 2016 before this new FCC even was in place. Further, a big percentage of the recent broadband deployments of these particular telcos are due to earlier FCC decisions prior to the Pai FCC. For example, AT&T was required as a requirement of the purchase of DirectTV to pass 12 million new residences and businesses with fiber. A lot of the broadband spending made by AT&T, Frontier and Alaska Communications are using CAF II funds given to them by the Wheeler FCC and which the companies are required to spend. None of those expenditures have anything to do with the repeal of net neutrality. And since net neutrality was only reversed a few months ago, it’s impossible to believe that any of the broadband spending in 2017 was due to this FCC. It’s far too early to see if that order will have any impact on rural broadband expenditures (something no industry experts expect).

This FCC Broadband Report concludes that deployment of broadband in the country is on track and reasonable. Yet the numbers in the report show that there are still 19 million Americans in rural America without access to adequate broadband. There are 12 million school-aged children who are suffering from the homework gap because they don’t have broadband at home.

By declaring that broadband deployment is adequate, Chairman Pai has let his FCC off the hook for having to take any actions to address the issue. But his stated reasons are based upon an argument that is clearly not supported by any facts. This would seem to put the Chairman in violation of his Section 706 obligations, although that’s probably something only Congress can determine.

I’m saddened to see the FCC become so partisan. This is not a new phenomenon and we saw partisan voting under the last several FCCs. Before that we had pro-big business FCCs such as the one under Chairman Michael Powell. But that FCC was far less partisan and still basically used the facts at its disposal in making decisions and setting policy.

The FCC has a mandate to balance what’s good for both the public and the telecom companies. In an ideal world the FCC would be a neutral arbiter that listens to the facts and sides with the best arguments. This trend towards a partisan FCC is bad for the industry because it means that major policies will flip-flop when we change administrations – and that’s not good for ISPs or the public. Partisanship does not excuse this FCC from abrogating its responsibility and making specious arguments not supported by facts. This FCC has taken partisanship too far.

The FCC’s 2018 Broadband Report

The FCC has released a draft the key findings from the 2018 Broadband Deployment Report that will be officially released to Congress this week. This report is usually interesting, and this year’s report includes a few big surprises.

The 25/3 Mbps Speed Benchmark. The FCC announced that it is keeping the 25/3 Mbps definition of broadband that was established by the former Tom Wheeler FCC. This is a surprise because all three Republican commissioners have been writing and making speeches that said that this benchmark is too high. Their positions on the topic garnered a lot of political pressure and it looks like, for now, that they are choosing to leave that benchmark alone. But as you will see below, they have still found a way to dilute the importance of the benchmark.

Mobile Broadband not a Substitute for Landline Broadband. There had also been a lot of discussion by the Republican commissioners to count a cellular broadband connection the same as a landline connection. They have been making the argument that many people are satisfied by a cellular connection and that functionally both kinds of broadband connection can functionally be substituted. They had suggested last year that a customer that uses either of the two kinds of broadband But the new report makes the positive statement that the two kinds of broadband are different and that there are ‘salient differences between the two technologies”.

Continuing to Track Fixed Broadband. Since cellular broadband is not a substitute for landline broadband the FCC concludes that is obligated to continue to track the deployment of landline broadband as it has done in the past. If tracking had been changed to show households that have access to either landline broadband cellular broadband, then almost everybody in the country would have been considered to have broadband.

The FCC is Meeting its Statutory Mandate to Promote Broadband. This is the zinger finding from the FCC. Reminiscent of George W. Bush’s comment after hurricane Katrina of “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job”, the FCC has patted itself on the back and concluded that it has already done enough to satisfy the Congressional mandate that everybody in America has access to broadband.

The FCC notes that it has taken sufficient steps to meet its regulatory mandate for improving broadband:

  • Has reduced regulatory barriers to the deployment of wireline and wireless broadband;
  • Created a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee to make recommendations on how to better deploy broadband;
  • Instituted reforms to the high-cost universal service funds to ensure accountability;
  • Introduced a reverse auction to provide additional rural broadband funding;
  • Revised rules for special access to promote facility-based competition for business services.
  • Authorized new wireless spectrum for use for landline and satellite broadband;
  • Eliminated Title II regulation and returned to light-touch regulations.

I’m not going to pick apart all of the items on that list, and some of them, like releasing more spectrum are positive steps. However, even there this FCC seems to favor licensed spectrum for the large ISPs rather than more public bandwidth. It’s really hard to make the argument that reversing Title II regulation and network neutrality will improve broadband coverage in the country. The recommendations from the FCC’s BDAC sub-committees are nothing more than suggestions, and from what we’ve seen so far most of the recommendations from these groups are parroting the positions of the giant ISPs.

It’s too early to know if the CAF II reverse auction will prove beneficial. There is some speculation that these funds will largely be pocketed by the big cellular carriers as another subsidy to continue to replace rural copper with cellular service. This may just turn into more of the same disaster we’ve seen with the first CAF II subsidy for the big rural telcos.

When the numbers get released with the final report we’ll still see that more than 20 million Americans don’t have access to broadband. While many of these live in rural areas there are still huge pockets of unserved residents in urban areas as well.

It’s true that this FCC has been active in the last year and has made the decisions cited in this draft report. But it’s nearly impossible to see how they can conclude that America has the broadband they need and that they have satisfied the Congressional broadband mandate. I guess we’ll have to see if Congress takes exception with their declaration that the state of American broadband doesn’t need any more help.