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So now we get word that the head telecom honchos in Congress will start to develop a process to update the Communications Act.
That’s all well and good. If Congress wants to bring parties together and come up with some proposals that can then be turned into legislation next year some time, then that effort should proceed with all deliberate speed.
On the other hand, the evidence is starting to mount that such a process will be contentious, to say the least, and could easily develop into gridlock. Telephone company-inspired letters are flowing down from Capitol Hill yet again attacking the FCC for daring to try to protect consumers and keep the Internet as a vital economic engine free from the clutches of telephone and cable companies. Whether Republican Senators or Democratic members of Congress, the message is the same – leave AT&T and the other companies alone so they can do what they want or else the Internet economy will shrivel up. Maybe that’s not how they see it, but that’s another interpretation of their message of being satisfied with being number 15 – or whatever this week’s ranking is – in the world in Internet subscriptions.
On the other hand, the air of unreality that surrounds any debate on Internet policy certainly is flowing into institutions other than Capitol Hill. It has certainly infected the Washington Post, which ran yet another editorial espousing the telephone/cable company view of the world and reflecting an unrecognized reality.
For example, the editorial argued, as has industry, that “To reverse course now by classifying broadband as a telecommunications service would require the agency to throw out years of its own data and analysis. While agencies have broad latitude in reevaluating regulatory schemes, reversals should be linked to significant market shifts. The facts do not support such a conclusion, and the FCC should not now try to shoehorn broadband into an existing -- but incompatible -- regulatory scheme.” (Of course, that same editorial also criticized the FCC for not being strict enough. How can the Post expect Congressional agreement when its own editorial is a house divided?)
Would it be that the facts didn’t support a conclusion that the FCC should go back and need to fix a mistake. Exactly which facts does the Post think aren’t supportable? That we have a competitive market now like the one we had a decade ago in which there were thousands of Internet Service Providers? How many ISPs are there now? How many choices do consumers have? Three at most are realistic. Satellite isn’t a realistic option. It’s slow and expensive. Wireless may be one some day, but again, with limited deployment of true broadband speeds and onerous terms of service, wireless isn’t ready for prime time.
So why is the regulatory regime “incompatible?” Incompatible with what? Connecting people to the Internet is a telecommunications service. The transmission piece is no different than any other service that has been regulated for years. As we have said before, the Communications Act is remarkably robust. Telephone networks have advanced in technology and use for decades, but the fundamental principles of fairness and non-discrimination have to apply regardless of technology.
Then the Post observed, “Advocates of increased oversight worry that the often-protracted legislative process will leave a gaping regulatory void that ISPs will exploit to engage in mischief. This is nonsense. It ignores the ISPs' need to provide good service to keep their customers, and it does not take into account the healthy oversight provided by those consumers and Internet watchdog groups. The Federal Trade Commission and the Justice Department also have the power to police anticompetitive or fraudulent acts.”
It is all well and good to believe that ISPs won’t take advantage of the situation. Except that they have. It is “nonsense” to say that ISPs need to provide good service because that wish doesn’t recognize the reality that consumers have so few other choices. In recent memory, RCN just settled a class action suit that it engaged in throttling behavior and Windstream admitted it hijacked users’ browsers and search capabilities. The “healthy oversight” by customers and “watchdog groups” is only “healthy” if there is some enforcement backing it up. The authorities that the editorial cites are far too slow, particularly antitrust suits, and too diffuse, to be of any use to consumers suffering at the hands of ISPs which want to take control of a consumer’s Internet experience.
The Post admits that the FCC “appears powerless” to implement the National Broadband Plan. But instead of calling for swift action to make certain rural customers aren’t put at a disadvantage, or the online economy is throttled or consumers are left unprotected, the Post recommends “a trek to Capitol Hill.”
Just out of curiosity, where were the Post and the industry when the FCC changed the regulatory status of broadband status the first time? Did the Post, the industry and various legislators complain that the FCC didn’t have the authority to exempt telephone company networks from having to sell access to the networks to others, shutting down what was left of competition? Did those parties complain when competition all but disappeared from the ISP market? So why now is the FCC authority being challenged and a “trek to Congress” recommended as a mandatory exercise? There is no good reason save the cynical arguments of industry-backed expression which ignore consumers and any sector of the economy outside of the interests of the telephone and cable companies and their dependent minions.
It's the FCC that's taking the realistic view of the broadband world now, for a change. They should be able to move ahead with their plans to protect consumers, preserve the digital economy and protect the open Internet. Any assistance Congressional leaders want to provide would be most welcome.