On October 2nd, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) announced that the U.S. Senate had voted to confirm the nomination of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai to serve the agency as chair for a second term. “Since January, the Commission has focused on bridging the digital divide, promoting innovation, protecting consumers and public safety, and making the FCC more open and transparent,” Pai is quoted as saying in the FCC’s press release on the news. The Senate confirmation leaves Pai in charge of the FCC for a term lasting up to five years.
The confirmation vote that re-established Pai as FCC chair was reportedly 52-41, a split which is indicative of very mixed feelings on Capitol Hill regarding Pai’s tenure. Pai’s nomination has received a great deal of pushback from the Democrat side of the aisle which is understandable given Pai’s decision to roll back the net neutrality regime put into force by former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler during the Obama Administration.
What seems to be a bit less than understandable, however, are the reasons given by Democrat leadership in the Senate for opposing Pai’s efforts to undo net neutrality as implemented by the Obama-era FCC. For example, Sen. Maria Cantwell (D-WA) gave remarks on the floor of the Senate on the day of Pai’s confirmation vote to voice various concerns about the FCC under Pai’s leadership. “Undoing the existing net neutrality laws that are on the books, I think, is not in the public interest and it won’t promote the access that we need,” Sen. Cantwell said. “Dismantling this rule, which would preserve the diversity of content, I think, are things that will negatively impact our marketplace for a long time.”
Free and open access to the Internet for all American consumers has been one of the major supports underpinning the Democrats’ support of a federal level net neutrality regime. That would be fine if net neutrality actually accomplished that goal. However, there are significant signs that over-regulation of Internet service providers (ISPs) adds a cost burden that prevents the development of additional broadband infrastructure, especially among rural providers. Last May, a letter addressed to the FCC from WTA – Advocates for Rural Broadband asked the agency not to impose privacy rules regarding customer disclosure and solicitation of customer approvals on carriers having less than 100,000 subscribers. “Imposing additional stringent privacy requirements will only divert critically needed resources from broadband infrastructure deployment to regulatory compliance,” the letter reads. One has to imagine that the supporters of the current net neutrality regime can’t be pleased to find out that the added costs of regulatory compliance are negatively impacting both the smallest broadband providers as well as those in rural areas who might have Internet access were it not for burdensome regulations.
Expanding consumer choice to enable more ISP options within an area is another reason provided by Democrats in support of maintaining net neutrality. However, as has been written about time and time again, that expanded consumer choice cannot be achieved through the federal level because it’s actually an issue of local municipal rules regarding utility rights of way. The desire to prevent ISPs from creating fast or slow lanes to throttle Internet traffic is quite meaningless in the face of pre-deployment barriers put up by local governments, with which ISPs have to negotiate for utility access, and the public utility providers who charge pole attachment or other fees so that new ISPs can rent space on existing utility lines and conduits.
So how does a misleading narrative end up ringing so loudly through the halls of Capitol Hill? Well, like many other such cases, it’s a narrative which is extremely well-financed and supported by those with some of the deepest pockets. Just consider the strongest supporters of net neutrality, giant tech companies like Microsoft, Google, Amazon.com and Netflix who consistently lobby to preserve a strong net neutrality framework. These companies get to influence the debate in Congress through the use of industry organizations that represent their interests, as a letter dated this July from the Internet Association to the FCC reflects. In this way, major tech companies get to talk about working “to the benefit of American businesses and consumers” while providing slanted research that concludes there will be “no demonstrable negative impact on broadband infrastructure investment.”
Meanwhile, the interests of small rural ISPs who aren’t represented by the Internet Association are not being heard because they cannot afford to hire high powered lobbyists, attend fundraisers and make donations that lead to access. Stakeholders in the U.S. patent system could tell a very similar story about efficient infringer lobby organizations like the High Tech Inventors Alliance, a different group that includes some of the same players in the net neutrality debate.
It’s also not surprising to see that Sen. Cantwell, such a staunch supporter of net neutrality, takes quite a bit of money from at least one of those Internet giants who stand to gain from the Obama-era net neutrality regime. Since 1991, the top donor to Sen. Cantwell’s political efforts has been Microsoft, contributing more than $388,000 during the Senator’s time in Washington, D.C., including her time serving in the U.S. House of Representatives. That’s not too surprising given Microsoft’s deep pockets and the fact that its headquarters are in Washington State, but it really begs the question why she seems to support policies that tilt the regulatory playing field in favor of the larger players as the expense of smaller entities. After all, the supporters of net neutrality tend to be large tech entities which have greater market capitalization rates and larger subscriber bases than the ISPs who apparently need to be reined in so tightly.
Why do ISPs, many of whom are smaller entities, need to be tighly reined in? Regulation efforts, if at all warranted, are typically forthcoming on those the top of the marketplace, not the bottom. Something seems backwards in recent American debate where the small entities are the ones bearing the burden of new laws and regulations.
Lost in all of this rhetoric over Chairman Pai’s supposed interest in limiting Internet access for Americans are the activities being overseen by Pai which are in the service of restoring Internet access to victims of natural disasters. On October 3rd, the day after Pai was confirmed for his second term, the FCC announced that it would make up to $76.9 million in funding available to aid in repairing wireline and wireless communication networks to restore communications services in Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, two U.S. territories which have seen incredible infrastructure damage caused by two major hurricanes in recent weeks. The tech media world’s desire to cast FCC Chairman Pai in the least favorable light possible means that, while the net neutrality issue gets a great deal of coverage from the likes of Ars Technica, The Verge and CNET, the announcement on funding hurricane repairs to restore Internet access barely gets any coverage because it doesn’t fit a narrative.
Of course, when Facebook sends a team to Puerto Rico to work on restoring Internet access everyone from Fortune to The New York Daily News covers the story. The same is true for when Alphabet sends balloons to Puerto Rico in an attempt to return limited Internet connectivity (see Mashable, CNET, Wired, and so many others). Outside of Reuters and Engadget, American news consumers would be hard-pressed to find details of Pai’s initiative. This type of selective coverage that creates a misleading narrative seems all too familiar in 2017.
Whatever you think of the relative merits of Pai’s efforts in Puerto Rico it seems difficult, if not impossible, for them to be considered any less newsworthy than a Google balloon, but they are practically omitted as if they never happened. Regardless of where you fall on the net neutrality spectrum that is a sad commentary.