It’s Time For Congress To Fire The FCC Chairman

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Above Photo: By Eric Thayer/Getty Images

FCC chairman Ajit Pai is genuinely one of the nicest people in Washington. He’s smart, personable, and the kind of guy you’d want to have a beer with. But nice guys don’t always make good policy (I’ve been bipartisan on this), and Pai’s record means real danger for American consumers and the internet itself. If you believe communications networks should be fast, fair, open, and affordable, you need ask your senator to vote against Pai’s reconfirmation. Now.

You can do so here.

The Senate vote on Pai is imminent. When it happens, it will be a stark referendum on the kind of communications networks and consumer protections we want to see in this country. Senators can choose a toothless FCC that will protect huge companies, allow them to further consolidate, charge higher prices with worsening service, and a create bigger disconnect between broadband haves and have-nots. Or, they can vote for what the FCC is supposed to do: protect consumers, promote competition, and ensure access for all Americans, including the most vulnerable. It shouldn’t be a hard decision, and what we’ve seen over the past eight months makes the stakes clear.

Below are just a few of the Pai FCC’s most harmful actions, which should help make your decision to contact your senator clear, too.

UNIVERSAL SERVICE PROGRAMS

Although Pai said in his first speech that his foremost goal was to close the digital divide, his first major action did precisely the opposite. He reversed an FCC Bureau decision to allow nine new companies to serve low-income Americans who receive a subsidy for broadband service, known as Lifeline. As a result, prices for broadband Lifeline service will stay high, speeds will stay slow, and the demand for this critical program will wither. Add Pai’s constant attacks on Lifeline and the people it serves, and it’s clear his goal is to undermine the program at every opportunity.

Pai has been similarly helpful in making sure incumbent ISPs that provide expensive broadband connectivity to schools and libraries funded by the FCC’s E-Rate program don’t have any competition. He’s done this by injecting fear and uncertainty into the availability of future E-Rate funding for those institutions that want to build their own networks that they will stay with the incumbents, even though an FCC report (which Pai unilaterally revoked) shows that prices decrease by 50 percent when there is competition for these services.

Curiously, when it comes to another government subsidy, the Connect America Fund, which provides for rural broadband access (which is very important), Pai wants to give the incumbent ISPs even more money, to the tune of billions of dollars, while at the same time reducing or eliminating funding for poor people, schools and libraries.

MEDIA CONSOLIDATION

It’s certain that Pai will allow massive consolidation of media at the local and national levels. Already, his gifts to incumbent broadcasters — particularly to the largest TV broadcaster, Sinclair — have gone wildly beyond mere deregulation. For example, Pai blessed a new broadcasting standard for which Sinclair has been the biggest advocate (and for which it controls many patents). And he reinstated a rule (the “UHF discount”) that had no grounding in technology or reality so that broadcasters and particularly Sinclair, could buy even morestations. Is there any doubt that, if Pai is confirmed, FCC approval of Sinclair’s massive pending merger with Tribune Broadcasting will be a cinch?

BROADBAND COMPETITION

When the previous FCC approved the merger of Charter and Time Warner Cable, it imposed a requirement that Charter provide broadband service to 1 million homes where other ISPs were operating to promote desperately needed competition for fixed broadband. At the behest of Charter and other incumbent ISPs that feared competition, Chairman Pai summarily eliminated that requirement, despite his own agency’s latest numbers; these show that 58 percent of the country has access to zero or one fixed broadband provider, and that 87 percent have access to two or fewer.

OVERSIGHT OF THE BROADBAND INDUSTRY

Of course, Pai’s biggest gift to incumbent ISPs is the proceeding to repeal its net neutrality rules, which at its core would eliminate the FCC’s authority to oversee the broadband market. This would mean that the FCC would be powerless to address, among other things, fraudulent billing, price gouging, and privacy violations. It also calls into question the FCC’s ability to apply Lifeline and Connect America Fund subsidies to broadband. Broadband consumers and businesses would be on their own with no protection whatsoever.

And forget about ensuring that citizens have access to high-quality broadband. The Pai FCC is poised to lower the standard for what constitutes broadband so that it can find that broadband is being deployed to all Americans “on a reasonable and timely basis.” This finding would eliminate the need for the agency to undertake any action that would promote broadband competition or better quality broadband service. As a result, you’ll be left with lousy broadband, and incumbent broadband providers will be free of any obligation to do better.

THIS IS WHERE YOU COME IN

This opportunity to weigh in on leadership of a critical government agency doesn’t come along often, and the stakes have perhaps never been higher. If you think that a Pai FCC will take us, and the broadband communications networks we rely upon, backward, then this is your chance to make your voice heard. The time for the future of the internet is now.