Last week the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation held a hearing to conduct oversight of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC). Although there was the typical overblown bickering over the FCC’s action on net neutrality rules taken in recent months under FCC Chairman Ajit Pai that one might expect, much of the day’s hearing focused on the poor quality of current broadband coverage maps employed by the FCC in distributing subsidies as well as the need to improve rural broadband deployment to reach millions of Americans living in rural communities.
“The inherently borderless nature of broadband internet access warrants discussion of a national framework,” said Senate Commerce Chairman Sen. Robert Thune (R-SD) in his opening remarks. Thune commended Chairman Pai for his efforts towards supporting broadband deployment in areas which didn’t have broadband providers. By contrast, the opening statement of Ranking Member Sen. Bill Nelson (D-FL) was much more negative, focusing on Chairman Pai’s actions which “remov[ed] consumer protections in almost every industry segment you regulate,” especially in terms of proposing to eliminate rules requiring children’s educational content broadcasts and “paving the way for unprecedented broadcast consolidation.”
FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel made comments in her opening testimony which pushed back against agency actions which she felt would undermine the FCC’s Lifeline program, a subsidy program meant to improve communications services for low-income U.S. citizens. Asked by Sen. Roger Wicker (R-MS) to respond to this criticism, Chairman Pai dismissed the claim as absolutely false. “Our goal is to make sure the Lifeline program once and for all focuses on consumers, not on the unscrupulous companies that for too long have bilked the FCC, have bilked the American taxpayer of their hard earned dollars,” Pai said. “Every dollar that is siphoned off by an unscrupulous wireless provider, for example, cannot go to somebody who needs the help.” Pai said this is why the FCC has been aggressive in its enforcement of the Lifeline program to weed out unscrupulous firms using the system and has been looking at reforms to that program.
Sen. Wicker also called the day’s first snap in the political football game that continues to be played over the FCC’s decision to rescind the 2015 Open Internet Order, eliminating the Title II common carrier classification for Internet service providers (ISPs). “I suppose since the new order by the FCC, I assume you’ve had a spate of throttling and blocking that’s just been outrageous, has that been the case?” Wicker asked. Pai responded that such had not been the case in the few months that the Open Internet Order had been rescinded, despite claims by critics that such an action would mean “the end of the Internet as we know it.” Near the end of the day’s hearing, Pai’s actions on net neutrality rules were also supported by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who added that the topic has been the subject of much hyperbole. “With an abundance of misinformation, many people of good conscience were told that somehow eliminating regulation of the Internet by the federal government would imperil their freedom,” Cruz said, confirming with Chairman Pai that the “parade of horribles” many critics of the FCC’s repeal said would come to pass.
On the Democrat’s side of the aisle, Sens. Ed Markey (D-MA) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH) were the two Senate Commerce Committee members who most readily took up the net neutrality cross, both of whom found an effective sounding board in Commissioner Rosenworcel. Asked by Markey whether the American public would see the proverbial fast and slow Internet lanes that would presumably be set up by ISPs without net neutrality rules in force at the FCC, Rosenworcel said that broadband providers have likely been dissuaded by legal actions including a lawsuit from attorneys general of 23 states, net neutrality legislation passed in three states and legislation pending in another 30 states. “What you’re seeing is the American public angry about what happened here and I’m certain that providers are careful in light of that,” Rosenworcel said. Rosenworcel was stronger on her stance that paid prioritization would develop during Hassan’s questioning period, stating that such actions will come to pass given ISPs technical ability combined with the business incentive of doing so.
With all due respect to the American public, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that their anger may be misplaced on the subject of net neutrality. First of all, the Court of Appeals for the Sixth Circuit struck down the FCC’s supposed authority under Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to implement the Open Internet Order and the FCC didn’t appeal the decision, so net neutrality rules were never truly enforced across the nation. It’s also a little curious why so many Americans would be so blindly supportive of large corporate interests including edge providers like Google and Facebook which have larger market capitalizations and subscriber bases than the ISPs which would have been prevented from charging edge providers for excessive bandwidth use under the net neutrality regime. And while most Americans would undoubtedly support increased deployment of broadband infrastructure for underserved rural communities, it must be discouraging to note that broadband capital expenditures decreased in the years after the Open Internet Order and that Title II reclassification was particularly damaging to infrastructure deployment efforts by rural ISPs which had to operate under the specter of potentially increased regulatory burdens.
The FCC and Chairman Pai faced more bipartisan scrutiny on the topic of broadband deployment maps which have been released by the agency as part of a subsidy program to increase Internet access in underserved areas. During questioning from Sen. Jerry Moran (R-KS), Pai noted that the FCC extended the process by which carriers and other entities can challenge the coverage maps up to 90 days but Moran said that the current version of the maps dramatically overstated existing unsubsidized coverage in Kansas and around the country, an issue he’s also brought up in the past. “One of my complaints then and now is that the FCC has put in place a map that is known to be flawed and expects others to fix the problem,” Moran said, adding that he didn’t believe that was the way that government should work. Commissioner Rosenworcel remarked that, if the agency doesn’t produce accurate maps for the subsidy program, it could end up spending up to $4.5 billion over the next 10 years in unproductive ways. She suggested that the FCC could better take advantage of resources in its field offices across the country instead of expecting that the FCC could adequately perform the work solely in the nation’s capital.
The effects of improved broadband deployment in rural areas could have wide-ranging impacts on the American economy as evidenced by the day’s discussion of telehealth initiatives that could be supported by more broadband infrastructure. FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr discussed a telehealth initiative for diabetes patients in Mississippi where, if only 20 percent of that state’s population of diabetes patients enrolled, the state could see a $189 million reduction in Medicaid expenses along with improved patient outcomes. Sen. Cory Gardner (R-CO) discussed a telestroke program in his state that has shown the capability of eliminating up to 80 percent of misdiagnosed strokes in order to preserve resources for patients who are actually experiencing that medical condition.