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FCC’s Ajit Pai Proposes Eliminating Net Neutrality Rules; Claims Government is ‘Controlling Internet’

Phillip Dampier April 27, 2017 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters 4 Comments

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai announces his opposition to Net Neutrality at a FreedomWorks-sponsored event at the Newseum in Washington, D.C.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The head of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Wednesday proposed overturning the landmark 2015 Obama-era Net Neutrality rules that prohibit broadband providers from giving or selling access to certain internet services over others.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, named by President Donald Trump in January, said at a speech in Washington he wants to reverse rules that boosted government regulatory powers over internet service providers. Proponents who fought to get the rules passed said his proposal would set off a fierce political battle over the future of the internet regulation.

The rules, which the FCC put in place in 2015 under former President Barack Obama, prohibit broadband providers from giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a “fast lane,” to certain internet services over others.

The rules reclassified internet service providers much like utilities. They were favored by websites who said they would guarantee equal access to the internet to all but opposed by internet service providers, who said they could eventually result in rate regulation, inhibit innovation and make it harder to manage traffic. Pai said he believed the rules depressed investment by internet providers and cost jobs.

“Do we want the government to control the internet? Or do we want to embrace the light-touch approach” in place since 1996 until revised in 2015, he asked.

A federal appeals court upheld the rules last year. The Internet Association, a group representing Facebook Inc, Alphabet Inc, and others, said the rules were working and that reversing them “will result in a worse internet for consumers and less innovation online.”

Pai said his proposal will face an initial vote on May 18 but he would not seek to finalize a reversal of the Obama rules until the FCC takes public comment, which could take several months.

Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly said the rules “took internet policy down into a dark and horrible abyss” and said the FCC will “expunge Net Neutrality regulations from the internet.”

Internet providers such as AT&T, Verizon Communications, and Comcast Corp have argued that the Net Neutrality rules have made investment in additional capacity less likely. Comcast chairman and chief executive Brian Roberts said Pai’s proposal “creates an environment where we can have a fresh constructive dialogue.”

Democratic Senator Edward Markey predicted Pai’s plan to overturn the rules would face a “tsunami of resistance.”

Democrats and advocates of the rules called for a massive public outcry to preserve them. In 2014, comedian John Oliver in his HBO show owned by Time Warner Inc., helped galvanize support for Net Neutrality.

“I am confident that the millions of Americans who weighed in with the FCC in support of the open internet order will once again make their voices heard to demonstrate how wrongheaded this approach is,” said Senate Democrat Leader Charles Schumer.

Republicans said Democrats should work with them to pass a legislative fix to set internet rules. Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell praised Pai for working to reverse “the Obama Administration’s eight-year regulatory assault on all aspects of our economy.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Tom Brown, Diane Craft and David Gregorio)

Trump Ready to Sign Repeal of Internet Privacy Regs; Net Neutrality Repeal Up Next

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump plans to sign a repeal of Obama-era broadband privacy rules as a bigger fight looms over rules governing the openness of the internet, the White House said on Wednesday.

Republicans in Congress on Tuesday narrowly passed the repeal of the privacy rules with no Democratic support and over the strong objections of privacy advocates.

The fight over privacy sets the stage for an even larger battle later this year over Republican plans to overturn the net neutrality provisions adopted by the administration of former President Barack Obama in 2015.

White House spokesman Sean Spicer said he did not know when Trump would sign the bill.

The privacy bill would repeal regulations adopted in October by the Federal Communications Commission under the Obama administration requiring internet service providers to do more to protect customers’ privacy than websites like Alphabet Inc’s Google or Facebook Inc.

Under the rules, internet providers would need to obtain consumer consent before using precise geolocation, financial information, health information, children’s information and web browsing history for advertising and marketing.

The reversal is a win for AT&T Inc, Comcast Corp and Verizon Communications Inc. Websites are governed by a less restrictive set of privacy rules overseen by the Federal Trade Commission.

Republican commissioners have said the rules would unfairly give websites the ability to harvest more data than internet service providers.

Senate Democratic leader Chuck Schumer said in a tweet the vote was “Terrible for American people, great for big biz.”

Republicans next plan to overturn Net Neutrality provisions that in 2015 reclassified broadband providers and treated them like a public utility.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, a Republican, in December said he believes that Net Neutrality’s days are numbered.

The rules bar internet providers from obstructing or slowing down consumer access to web content and prohibit giving or selling access to speedy internet, essentially a “fast lane” on the web’s information superhighway, to certain internet services.

Critics say the rules opened the door to potential government rate regulation, tighter oversight and would provide fewer incentives to invest billions in broadband infrastructure.

Pai told Reuters in February be backs “a free and open internet and the only question is what regulatory framework best secures that” but has steadfastly declined to disclose his plans.

Trump has not talked as president about Net Neutrality but in 2014 tweeted he opposed it.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Lisa Shumaker)

Corporate/Koch Brother-Linked Group Asks FCC to Repeal Charter/Spectrum’s Data Cap Prohibition

A conservative group funded by corporate interests and the Koch Brothers has asked FCC chairman Ajit Pai to answer its petition and move expeditiously to cancel the prohibition of data caps/usage-based pricing as a condition for FCC approval of Charter Communications’ acquisition of Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

A number of pro-consumer deal conditions were included as part of the merger transaction’s approval, and won the support of a majority of FCC commissioners under the leadership of former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, appointed by President Barack Obama.

The Competitive Enterprise Institute (CEI) is hopeful that with Wheeler out of office and a new Republican majority at the FCC under the Trump Administration means the FCC will end requirements that Charter offer unlimited data plans, discounted internet access for low-income consumers, and start allowing Charter to charge fees to Netflix and other content providers to connect to its broadband customers. CEI has every reason to be hopeful, pointing out Chairman Pai is a fan of data caps on residential broadband service, opposes Net Neutrality, and recently effectively killed a Lifeline program that would have extended inexpensive internet access to the poor.

CEI:

As then-Commissioner Pai wrote in 2016, this condition is neither “fair” nor “progressive.” Instead, he called this “the paradigmatic case of the 99% subsidizing the 1%,” as it encourages Charter to raise prices on all consumers in response to costs stemming from the activities of a “bandwidth-hungry few.” Other problematic conditions include the ban on Charter charging “edge providers” a price for interconnection and the requirement that the company operate a “low-income broadband program” for customers who meet certain criteria.

The group is optimistic Pai will oversee the unwinding of Charter’s deal conditions largely pushed by former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler, after Pai recently led the charge to revoke another condition required of Charter in return for merger approval – a commitment to expand its cable network to pass at least one million new homes that already receive broadband service from another provider.

Pai also opposed the low-income internet program, calling it “rate regulation.” The CEI claimed the requirement will “undermine Charter’s ability to price its services in an economically rational manner.”

“Hopefully, the FCC’s new leadership will seize this opportunity to take a stand against harmful merger conditions that have nothing to do with the transaction at hand—by granting CEI’s petition,” the group wrote on its blog.

FCC’s Ajit Pai on Mission to Sabotage Charter-Bright House-Time Warner Cable Deal Conditions

Pai

As a result of the multibillion dollar cable merger between Charter Communications, Bright House Networks, and Time Warner Cable, the three companies involved freely admitted: your cable bill was unlikely to decrease, you won’t have any new competitive options, there was no guarantee your service would improve, or that you would get faster broadband service than what Time Warner Cable Maxx was already delivering to about half its customer base.

While shareholders and Wall Street bankers made substantial gains, top Time Warner Cable executives walked away with multimillion dollar golden parachute packages, and Charter took control of what is now the country’s supersized, second most powerful cable operator, regulators also required the dealmakers share at least a tiny portion of the spoils with customers.

Then President Donald Trump’s FCC chairman — Ajit Pai — took leadership of the telecom regulator. Now all bets are off.

Pai is reconsidering the settled deal conditions imposed by the FCC under the last administration, and wants to give Charter Communications a free pass to let them out of their commitment to compete. Last week, Pai circulated a petition among his fellow commissioners to roll back the commitment Charter acknowledged to expand its service area to at least one million new homes that already get broadband service from another cable or telephone company.

Former FCC chairman Thomas Wheeler sought the competition requirement to prove that cable operators can successfully run their businesses in direct competition with each other, potentially inspiring other cable companies to face off with incumbent operators outside of their own territories. A paradigm shift worked for Google, which inspired ISPs to boost speeds in light of its gigabit Google Fiber service, which reset customer expectations.

The FCC order approving the merger deal was hardly onerous, requiring Charter to compete head-to-head for customers in places the company can choose itself. Lawmakers eliminated exclusive cable franchise agreements years ago, but established major cable operators like Charter have gone out of their way to avoid competing in areas that already receive cable service. While Wheeler may have hoped some of that competition would be directed against fellow cable companies, Charter CEO Thomas Rutledge quickly made clear to investors and the FCC Charter would continue to avoid direct cable competition, instead promising to expand service into non-cable areas that already get DSL service from the phone company or no broadband at all.

“When I talked to the FCC, I said I can’t overbuild another cable company, because then I could never buy it, because you always block those,” Rutledge said. “It’s really about overbuilding telephone companies.”

Charter’s CEO believes most phone companies are not competing on the same level as cable operators and are unwilling to make the necessary investments to upgrade their aging wired infrastructure to offer faster internet speeds. That makes competing with telephone companies like Windstream, Frontier, and Verizon’s DSL-only service areas a much better proposition than trying to compete head-to-head with Comcast, Cox, or Cablevision.

Rutledge’s clear views about Charter’s expansion plans apparently never made it to the American Cable Association, a cable industry lobbying group that defends the interests of independent and smaller cable operators. Despite Rutledge’s public statements, the ACA and its members are afraid Charter could expand on their turf anyway, potentially forcing small cable operators to compete with the same level of service Charter offers. The horror.

The ACA’s arguments found a sympathetic audience in Mr. Pai and now he wants to let Charter off the hook, at the expense of competition and better service for consumers.

Under the proposal circulated by Pai, Charter would still be required to expand its cable broadband service by at least one million new homes, but those homes would no longer have to be in areas outside of Charter’s existing service footprint. In practical terms, this would mean Charter would focus on wiring areas not far from where it provides service today — ‘DSL or nothing’-country. Charter would also be able to fritter away the number of expansions required by counting newly constructed neighborhood developments it would have likely wired anyway, as well as upgrading its remaining shoddy legacy cable systems — some still incapable of offering broadband or phone service.

The ACA’s talking points prefer to emphasize the David vs. Goliath scenario of a big bully of a cable company like Charter being forced to compete (and likely obliterate) existing small cable operators:

“The overbuild condition imposed by the FCC on Charter is stunningly bad and inexplicable government policy,” said ACA president and CEO Matthew Polka, in a statement. “On the one hand, the FCC found that Charter will be too big and therefore it imposed a series of conditions to ensure it does not exercise any additional market power. At the same time, the FCC, out of the blue, is forcing Charter to get even bigger.”

The real goal here is to minimize direct competition at all costs. The FCC’s deal conditions already included the need for more rural broadband expansion. Wheeler’s second goal was to introduce a new model — cable company competing against cable company — fighting for new customers by offering consumers better service and pricing. The existence of such competition would belie the industry’s claim that cable overbuilds and head-to-head competition is uneconomical. Wildly profitable, perhaps not, but certainly possible. Historically, the traditional way cable operators dealt with the few instances of direct cable competition was to buy them out to put them out of business. Rutledge was certainly thinking along those lines when he complained that the FCC’s order to compete did not include permission to eventually devour its competitor, effectively making competition go away.

Had Charter chosen to compete with cable companies not afraid to spend money to upgrade service above and beyond the anemic broadband speeds Charter offers, it would likely find few takers for its maximum 300Mbps broadband service that comes with a $200 install fee.

“Why would we go where we could get killed?” Rutledge admitted.

Industry claims that the cable business is already fiercely competitive are also countered by Rutledge’s own statements making clear direct competition with brethren cable companies on the cusp of speed-boosting DOCSIS 3.1 upgrades was bad for business. Instead, he would focus on competing with inferior phone companies, which he characterized as mired in debt, still skeptical about the financial wisdom of fiber optic upgrades, and the only competitor where dismal 3-10Mbps DSL service presented a ripe opportunity to steal customers away.

Clyburn – A likely “no” vote.

Charter’s merger approval and its conditions are a sealed deal that was acceptable to Charter and its shareholders and at least offered small token treats to ordinary consumers. Mr. Pai’s willingness to reopen and undo those commitments is just one reason we’ve referred to his regulatory philosophy as irresponsible, nakedly anti-consumer, and anti-competitive. Mr. Pai’s willingness to embrace things as they are comes at the same time most consumers are paying the highest broadband bills ever while also facing an epidemic of usage caps, usage billing, and increasing service and equipment fees. Mr. Pai’s other actions, including ending an effort to introduce competition into the set-top box market, curtailing customer privacy, ending inquiries on usage caps/zero rating, threatening to eliminate Net Neutrality, and reducing the FCC’s already anemic focus on consumer protection makes it clear Mr. Pai is a company man, on a mission to defend the interests of Big Telecom companies and their lobbyists (that also have a history of hiring friendly regulators for high-paying positions once their government job ends.)

That conclusion seems apt considering what Mr. Pai said about Chairman Wheeler’s vision of improving broadband: “one more step down the path of micromanaging where, when, and how ISPs deploy infrastructure.” Missing from his statement are consumers who have spent the last 20 years watching ISPs govern themselves while waiting… waiting… waiting for broadband service that never comes.

Mr. Pai’s proposal needs just one additional vote to win passage. That extra vote is unlikely until President Trump appoints another Republican commissioner. Pai’s proposal isn’t likely to win support from the sole remaining Democrat commissioner still at the FCC — Mignon Clyburn.

Ajit Pai Starts FCC Chairmanship by Clear-Cutting Pro-Consumer Policies, Cheap Internet for the Poor

Pai

Like President Donald Trump, Ajit Pai is a busy man. He’s spent his first month as FCC chairman gutting his predecessor’s legacy, reversing pro-consumer policies, ending forays into set-top box competition, fair pricing for inmate phone calls, cheap internet access for the poor, ending reviews of data caps and zero rating practices, and threatening to terminate Net Neutrality with extreme prejudice.

No wonder Bob Quinn, AT&T senior executive vice president of external & legislative affairs applauded President Trump’s appointment of Pai, proclaiming he will “quickly and decisively put back in place the commonsense regulatory framework necessary to support the President’s agenda for job creation, innovation and investment. We look forward to working with him and his team and the FCC to support President Trump’s growth agenda.”

AT&T’s only growth agenda is sending customers ever-increasing bills, and with Mr. Pai at the helm of the FCC, they are sure to get their wish.

Over their terms at the FCC under the Obama Administration, Republican Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly frequently complained their minority voices on the Commission were ignored and newly proposed regulations or policies would come before the FCC so quickly, there was inadequate time for public review. But since Pai teamed up with O’Rielly to abolish many of the most important achievements of his predecessor, Chairman Thomas Wheeler, they have reportedly all but ignored the sole remaining Democrat currently serving on the Commission — Mignon Clyburn.

Last Friday, Clyburn accused Pai of hypocrisy for complaining about policies being rushed for a vote without explanation before doing the same thing himself late last week.

FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn

Clyburn

“Today is apparently ‘take out the trash day.’ In an eponymous episode of the West Wing, White House Chief of Staff Josh Lyman stated: ‘Any stories we have to give the press that we’re not wild about, we give all in a lump on Friday . . . Because no one reads the paper on Saturday,'” Clyburn said in a statement. “Today multiple Bureaus retract—without a shred of explanation—several items released under the previous administration that focus on competition, consumer protection, cybersecurity and other issues core to the FCC’s mission. In the past, then-Commissioner Pai was critical of the agency majority for not providing sufficient reasoning behind its decisions.”

Clyburn’s office asked for more than the allotted two days to review a dozen items that suddenly appeared on the FCC’s agenda.

“We were rebuffed,” Clyburn wrote.

Clyburn then accused Pai of violating the Administrative Procedure Act, which requires adequate public notice and a comment period for public input. When she asked the chairman to comply with the “reasoned decision-making requirements of the APA,” she was told ‘No deal.’

Mr. Pai’s regulatory rollback agenda has moved with breathtaking speed, according to some FCC observers. Consumer group Free Press today called Pai’s progress “Orwellian.” Over less than a month, Pai — with the help of Commissioner O’Rielly — has:

  • Announced the formation of a Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee that is expected to be stacked with industry stakeholders that will recommend reform the FCC’s pole attachment rules, identify “unreasonable” regulatory barriers to broadband deployment, encourage local governments to adopt “deployment-friendly” policies, and develop a “model code” for local franchising, zoning, permitting, and rights-of-way regulations for telecom infrastructure like cell towers. Few expect the eventual “model code” to stray far from Big Telecom companies’ wish lists;
  • Near-unilaterally loosened rules allowing AM radio stations to continue making their presence felt on the overcrowded FM band through the use of low-power FM “translator” stations that rebroadcast the AM station’s programming;
  • Changed FCC policies to give broader notice of upcoming agenda items and policy proposals, ostensibly to improve public access to FCC rulemaking procedures. But observers suggest the change will primarily benefit industry lobbyists who will have advance detailed notice about the FCC’s upcoming agenda items, allowing them time to lobby for or against the proposals, or suggest changes;
  • Rescinded “Improving the Nation’s Digital Infrastructure,” a policy paper promoting rural broadband deployment and other broadband improvements released just prior to the inauguration of President Trump. On Feb. 3, the FCC set “aside and rescinds the Digital Infrastructure Paper, and any and all guidance, determinations, recommendations, and conclusions contained therein. The Digital Infrastructure Paper will have no legal or other effect or meaning going forward.”
  • Rescinded “in its entirety and effective immediately, earlier guidance provided in a March 12, 2014, public notice, DA 14-330, “Processing of Broadcast Television Applications Proposing Sharing Arrangements and Contingent Interests,” which attempted to limit ongoing media consolidation controversies including allowing one TV station to effectively operate and provide content for so-called ‘competing’ stations in a local area.
  • Closed the FCC’s investigation into wireless carriers’ zero-rating policies, which allow subscribers free access to “preferred provider content” without it counting against their data plan. Critics call zero rating an end run around Net Neutrality, because providers treat their own content as “preferred.” AT&T charges other content providers to participate in its zero rating program.
  • Instructed the FCC’s legal team to stop defending court challenges to its authority to ensure fair and reasonable telephone rates for incarcerated prisoners held captive to using a single carrier to make phone calls at prices much higher than what the public pays. Those rates were as high as $5.70 for a 15-minute in-state collect call placed from an incarceration facility in Kentucky. In that state alone, consumers effectively paid $2.79 million in kickbacks to state prison systems or a county jail. In contrast, a similar 15-minute call placed from a West Virginia jail or prison would cost $0.48. As a result of Pai’s actions, companies like Global Tel*Link, Securus, and Telmate “can continue the practice of price gouging prisoners and their families,” according to Prison Phone Justice;
  • Ended former FCC Chairman Wheeler’s attempt to force competition in the cable set-top box marketplace, allowing consumers to take a bite out of the $20 billion cable companies make in rental fees annually. At least 99% of subscribers now pay an average of $231 a year to lease the boxes, even after the company has fully recouped their original cost. Customers in Canada can buy their own set-top boxes and DVRs.
  • Killed an expansion of the FCC’s Lifeline program to offer discounted internet access to the poor. Pai reversed approvals made to nine providers — none accused of waste, fraud, or abuse — including Kajeet, Spot On, Boomerang Wireless, KonaTel, FreedomPop, Applied Research Designs, Liberty Cablevision of Puerto Rico, Northland Cable Television and Wabash Independent Networks. Pai later defended the move claiming his predecessor rushed through approval of the providers and he was rescinding those “midnight rules” as current chairman. Many Republicans are seeking a complete elimination of the Lifeline program.
  • Rescinded the latest progress report on modernizing the Universal Service Fund’s E-Rate program, which is designed to subsidize telecom services for schools and libraries. It could be the first step in eliminating or dramatically reforming the Fund;
  • Gave two violators of the FCC’s rules on properly collecting and reporting information about the source of political advertising aired on stations air a free pass.
  • Threw out a white paper from the FCC’s own Homeland Security Bureau advising the agency on cybersecurity issues. Pai doesn’t think the FCC should be involved in cybersecurity, so anything contrary to his agenda of reducing the role of the FCC is likely destined for the nearest wastepaper basket.

FCC letter to AT&T’s Bob Quinn letting him know the company is off the hook with the FCC on zero rating.

“Ajit Pai has been on the wrong side of just about every major issue that has come before the FCC during his tenure,” said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. “He’s never met a mega-merger he didn’t like or a public safeguard he didn’t try to undermine. He’s been an inveterate opponent of Net Neutrality, expanded broadband access for low-income families, broadband privacy, prison-phone justice, media diversity and more. If Trump really wanted an FCC chairman who’d stand up against the runaway media consolidation that he himself decried in the AT&T/Time Warner deal, Pai would have been his last choice — though corporate lobbyists across the capital are probably thrilled.”

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