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On his very first day as the Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Ajit Pai dedicated himself to closing the digital divide and to “work to bring the benefits of the digital age to all Americans.” Sounds promising for America, right? Unfortunately, Chairman Pai hasn’t followed through with this promise. Instead, the Trump-appointed FCC Chairman has rubberstamped the elimination of several policies and protections that are critical to closing the digital divide.
Among these now-battered policies is an item that will be decided on in November and will give telecom giants a green light to abandon their rural customers.
Under the current FCC rules, legacy telecom providers must notify their customers 180 days before making changes to their existing copper network to either maintain the current service offered or to upgrade the infrastructure for potentially faster, better internet service. Chairman Pai is calling for a vote to gut this requirement altogether, calling it an “unnecessary regulatory encumbrance.” This means that areas still operating on the traditional copper network, like much of rural America, could lose or see a change in their current service without advanced notice, and might not get an adequate replacement. Millions of Americans rely on the copper network every single day in states like Pennsylvania (1,304,000 consumers and 995 businesses), Illinois (800,000 consumers and 1,459,000 businesses) and Texas (1,381,000 consumers and 1,814,000 businesses). Without the FCC rules as security between rural consumers and profit-driven broadband providers, many in rural America could lose access to important services and receive less reliable internet than urban areas. This would in turn widen the already troubling digital divide; 39 percent of America’s rural population lacks access to high-speed internet connection.
The draft Order that will be voted on by the Commissioners in November was circulated last week by the Commission. It eliminates several copper retirement notice requirements including those that currently go directly to consumers, government entities, and tribal nations. The Order also eliminates the Functional Test, a safeguard implemented by the FCC in 2015 that requires companies to evaluate the effects a change in broadband infrastructure would have on a single community. Chairman Pai instead offers the “Tariff Test” as a replacement, a lackluster guide that will empower companies to change infrastructure according to their best business interests rather than what’s best for consumers. This could mean catastrophic abandonment for rural communities as companies bail on their decomposing copper networks in favor of fiber lines that bring higher speeds at unaffordable costs. In some cases, companies may forego replacing copper networks at all simply because it doesn’t benefit their bottom line. Even where communities do receive replacement infrastructure for their copper networks, the service offered may not be of the same quality, let alone an improvement. All of these scenarios are a downgrade for rural Americans, who are already less likely than Americans overall to have at home broadband.
Providers should continue to be held accountable to consumers, not given a free pass to downgrade Americans for more profit.
Perhaps the most troubling part of Chairman Pai’s recent attack on the digital divide is how disguised and under the radar this proceeding has been. The Chairman openly prides himself on implementing regulations that bridge the digital divide, yet consistently proposes and votes against that very interest. His friendly demeanor and legal gymnastics may make it look like he is fighting on behalf of consumers, but in reality, his agenda only hurts the American public, particularly communities that require the most help. Chairman Pai has even gone so far as to name the current proceeding Accelerating Wireline Broadband Deployment by Removing Barriers to Infrastructure Investment; a name that, to the naked eye, screams “I’m helping Americans upgrade their services!” However, underneath this facade, it is crystal clear that this is just another industry-backed plan to downgrade rural America.
Broadband deployment, specifically rural broadband deployment, is a nonpartisan issue; from Capitol Hill to Silicon Valley, the public wants connectivity for all. But America’s move from copper to fiber should be an upgrade for all, not just those of us who live in the “right” ZIP code.