Historically, the FCC has steered well clear of regulating broadband prices. Hell, for most of the last fifteen years the FCC hasn’t even admitted that high prices due to limited competition are a problem, instead focusing on the politically sexier idea of ensuring uniform availability. The FCC certainly collects pricing data from broadband ISPs, but, at the industry’s behest, never shares that data with the public. As a result, we get things like our $300 million national broadband map, which will happily show you (largely hallucinated) speed and competitive options in your neighborhood, but won’t tell you how much they cost.
And while the FCC did move last year to expand its authority over broadband providers by reclassifying ISPs under Title II of the Communications Act, FCC boss Tom Wheeler has stated time and time again that the agency has no intention of regulating broadband rates, either in regards to last mile prices or peering and interconnection. But that doesn’t mean the threat of broadband price regulations still can’t be a useful bogeyman for opponents of net neutrality.
Still fuming from FCC “power grabs” like raising the broadband definition to 25 Mbps and passing relatively basic and loophole-filled net neutrality rules, the GOP is pushing yet another parade of legislation aimed at curtailing the FCC’s authority over broadband providers. And while the legislation is being framed by House members (and ex-FCC members now lobbying for broadband providers) as a way to protect small ISPs from a power mad government intent on dictating sector prices, consumer advocate groups note that as worded, the proposals are largely about ensuring the FCC won’t actually be able to do its job:
“The two broadband bills use incredibly broad language that endangers the ability of the FCC to protect consumers from fraudulent charges, threatens the ongoing effort to reform the Universal Service Fund to subsidize rural broadband, and potentially deprives millions of consumers of the right to know how their broadband providers make critical decisions about their broadband subscriptions,” said Feld.
If you’d fallen asleep during the admittedly monotonous net neutrality debates after the rules were passed, all you really need to know is that net neutrality opponents in Congress have been trying desperately to punish the FCC for daring to stand up to industry incumbents like AT&T and Comcast. This has included an embarrassing parade of so-called fact finding hearings in which FCC boss Tom Wheeler was scolded repeatedly for challenging the broadband status quo. Burying neutrality and FCC authority killing measures in budget riders has also become a popular pastime.
It should be noted that the House’s proposals are largely uncooked. One of the laws in question so far appears to only state this:
“Notwithstanding any other provision of law, the Federal Communications Commission may not regulate the rates charged for broadband Internet access service.”
Why this sudden focus on the menace that is “broadband rate regulation?” Because companies like Comcast continue to not only impose utterly unnecessary broadband caps and overage fees, but Comcast is now trying to run rough shod over net neutrality by exempting its own services from the usage caps. As the pressure mounts on the FCC to wake up and actually enforce the net neutrality rules the public forced it to adopt, loyal allies in Congress are doing their very best to pull the rug out from underneath the FCC.
The irony of course is that the FCC, regardless of what party is in control, has shown time, and time, and time again that it doesn’t give two shits about the high cost of broadband. It by and large has also indicated that it thinks usage caps and zero rating proposals are innovative and nifty. The idea that the FCC is going to aggressively start engaging in broadband rate regulations (when it can’t even admit high-pricing is a problem) is another straw man put forth by a Congress whose full-time job is to protect the broadband industry duopoly from the remotest possibility of public accountability.
Jan 12th 2016