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Mission Possible: Ajit Pai’s Stated Goal is to Kill Telecom Regulation

Phillip Dampier October 11, 2017 Public Policy & Gov't 2 Comments

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“We want to eliminate, as much as we can, government regulation of the telecommunications marketplace so as to permit present players to provide new and innovative services to consumers and likewise permit new players to come in and compete,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai told an audience attending a speech at the Ronald Reagan Library in Simi Valley, Calif.

He was quoting and affirming words first spoken by Reagan era FCC Chairman Mark Fowler. It was a core theme in Pai’s speech, entitled “Morning in Digital America,” and it signaled Pai and his Republican colleagues would do everything possible to inspire and affirm the country’s largest telecom companies’ investments that he felt would only grow with the obliteration of rules and regulations established by his predecessor during the Obama Administration.

Pai cited the wireless industry’s transition to 5G service, quoting the CTIA — the wireless industry’s top lobbying organization, as creating “three million jobs and over $500 billion in additional economic growth over seven years.”

“The most powerful tool for expanding digital opportunity is market-based, light-touch regulation—for this maximizes private investment in high-speed networks,” Pai predicted. “That’s why we’ve sought to break down regulatory barriers to installing wireless and wireline infrastructure. Too often, government at all levels makes it hard for companies to construct next-generation networks. So we’re focused on cutting as much of this red tape as we can.”

Pai also claimed he restored the “collaborative and collegial traditions of the FCC.”

“Under my leadership, about 80% of the major items voted on at our monthly meetings have been approved with bipartisan support and without dissent, compared to less than 50% under my predecessor,” Pai claimed.

All but one of the current commissioners were in place during the second term of the Obama Administration, meaning under Pai’s predecessor, it was Republican commissioners Pai and O’Rielly that dissented the most at the time.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai Wins New 5-Year Term With Republican Support

‘I win’ — Pai wins a second 5-year term at the FCC.

Republicans in the U.S. Senate on Monday confirmed Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai for a second five-year term at the regulatory agency at a time when he is in the process of dismantling the legacy left by the former Obama Administration, which introduced consumer telecommunications reforms and mandated Net Neutrality.

Pai won confirmation with unanimous Republican support, joined by four Democrats — Sens. Jon Tester (Mont.), Gary Peters (Mich.), Joe Manchin (W.V.), and Claire McCaskill (Mo.). Every other Democrat in attendance opposed his nomination, many raising serious doubts about his performance and regulator philosophy. Pai was a former lawyer for Verizon and has delivered policy speeches sponsored by large corporate interests, including Americans for Prosperity, which has close ties to the Koch Bros.

Although Pai promised in a statement after the vote he would continue to focus on “bridging the digital divide, promoting innovation, protecting consumers and public safety, and making the FCC more open and transparent,” his critics complain he has spent most of his time repealing Obama era rules and regulations to erase the legacy of his predecessor Thomas Wheeler.

Pai is widely expected to preside over the elimination of Net Neutrality/Open Internet protections, despite millions of objections from ordinary Americans who wrote the FCC in historic numbers. Most requested the agency preserve the rules that prevent internet providers from establishing paid fast lanes and speed throttles.

Pai “has established a clear record of favoring big corporations at the expense of consumers, innovators, and small businesses,” Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer said.

Senate roll call vote on the nomination of Ajit Pai for another 5-year term.

The current FCC chairman has also received withering criticism from consumer and public interest groups for his apparent close ties to Sinclair Broadcast Group, which itself has ties to the Trump Administration. Critics accuse Pai of engineering FCC rule changes that closely coincide with the business agenda of Sinclair, the nation’s largest owner of local television stations. Sinclair is currently awaiting FCC approval of its acquisition of Tribune Media, which will include local stations serving major cities including New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) was particularly critical of Pai’s performance, suggesting he was little more than a corporate tool:

“As powerful companies know, it is good to have friends on the inside and they have invested a lot of money in making friends. Giant corporations have spent unlimited amounts of money to elect politicians who will promote their views and to flood Congress with lobbyists who will work around the clock to destroy laws and rules that the industry doesn’t like and to reshape those laws to suit corporate interests.

“[…] Powerful corporations need weak agencies that won’t hold them accountable, so they work to fill those agencies with their allies — friends who can undo the rules that giant corporations don’t like. Friends who won’t go after those companies when they throw the rules out the window to make an extra buck. The FCC is one of the agencies that has been on their hit list for a long time, and now they see their opportunity to execute a corporate takeover of the FCC, and they started at the top with Ajit Pai, President Trump’s pick to chair the FCC. Since his appointment as chair of the FCC, Chairman Pai has worked at breakneck speed to transform the FCC from an agency that works in the public interest to a big business support group.”

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) explains her reasons why she doesn’t support the nomination of FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for another five-year term. (8:43)

Boston Globe Joins Parade of Outlets Opposing Sinclair-Tribune Merger

Phillip Dampier September 5, 2017 Competition, Consumer News, Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

The Boston Globe has joined a parade of media outlets concerned about the future of local news that could be affected if Sinclair is successful in winning approval of its acquisition of Tribune Media’s 42 television stations, calling Sinclair a “behemoth” and the deal “a matter of urgent concern.”

Sinclair is already the largest owner of local television stations in the United States, and its proposed $3.9 billion purchase of Tribune would turn it into a behemoth, with access to more than 70 percent of American households.

An expansion of that size isn’t in the public interest, and federal regulators should move to block it. If they fail to act, state attorneys general should step up and attempt to stop the merger. Sinclair, which already has stations in Rhode Island and Maine and is looking to expand into Connecticut, has a history of slashing staff and requiring its stations to share content — reducing local news coverage in the process.

The network also requires its stations to air centrally produced, conservative-leaning segments. There are daily missives, for instance, from the “Terrorism Alert Desk” — including one piece on the French controversy over “burkinis,” apparently deemed a terrorism-related story simply because it involved Muslims. One election package suggested voters shouldn’t back Hillary Clinton, in part, because of the Democratic Party’s proslavery history. And Sinclair hired former Trump surrogate Boris Epshteyn as its chief political analyst.

[…] Sinclair’s expansion also raises classic anticompetitive concerns. A larger company will be able to demand bigger fees from cable providers retransmitting their broadcasts — costs that will eventually be passed on to consumers. […] There are other ways to prevent large cable companies from throwing their weight around. Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s Federal Communications Commission doesn’t seem interested in implementing them. Indeed, Trump’s FCC and Department of Justice don’t seem interested in much regulation at all.

The FCC docket asking for public comment on the transaction has attracted plenty of opposition to the deal from industry groups, lobbyists, competitors, consumer groups, and members of the public.

Copps (Image: Peretz Partensky)

“Sinclair has failed to explain how this multi-billion dollar merger could possibly be in the public interest,” said Computer & Communications Industry Association President Ed Black. “Even more, allowing this centrally controlled broadcast behemoth that has a history of cutting local news staff and adversely affect independent, local TV stations, would be detrimental. Anyone who values decentralized government control, states’ rights and independent voices should oppose this merger that would harm citizens and weaken our democracy. It’s a concern that a merger that would be so harmful to rural areas, independent news stations and citizens could even be considered. The FCC should reject this takeover proposal outright, and Congress needs to hold hearings to more thoroughly understand the media landscape and how critical independent local broadcast stations are in a democracy.”

“We believe this merger as proposed is unlawful, not in the public interest and should be rejected,” said Matthew Polka, CEO of the American Cable Association. The ACA represents over 700 small independent telecom companies, primarily serving suburban and rural communities.

“It would turn Sinclair into the nation’s largest broadcast conglomerate and lead to higher prices, more station blackouts, less choice, and less local news for millions of consumers,” said Dish Network in its petition to deny the merger.

Even a former FCC commissioner has spoken up against the deal.

Sinclair “comes with an ideology that is far more focused on conservative points of view than any sense of balance or any deep-dive journalism,” said Michael Copps, a former FCC commissioner and special adviser to Common Cause. “No one company should have such power over the news and information that citizens must have if they are going to cast intelligent votes and practice successfully the art of self-government.”

American Enterprise Institute’s Shallow Formula for Broadband Nirvana

AEI: If you bought broadband service, that means you like your service and don’t need or want anything better.

The American Enterprise Institute wants the FCC to judge to quality of America’s broadband based on what customers are able to buy today and how much they are willing to pay to get it.

Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 requires the FCC to report to Congress whether broadband “is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion.” As part of that process, the FCC must determine if Americans are getting internet connections capable of providing “advanced telecommunications capability.”

If the FCC reports to Congress that the country’s biggest telecom companies are letting their customers down with inadequate service or no service at all, that can create conditions for the FCC to step in and start insisting on more competition and oversight as well as setting benchmarks for providers to meet. If the report shows that broadband service is adequately provided, the FCC need not regulate, and in some cases such a finding will fuel calls to further deregulate the industry by getting rid of “unnecessary regulation.”

Not surprisingly, findings since 2001 have varied depending on which political party holds the majority on the Commission. Under President George W. Bush, the FCC consistently found broadband service was being adequately deployed to Americans. The FCC also set the bar pretty low on broadband speed, claiming anything at or above 4/1Mbps service constituted “broadband.” That definition comfortably accommodated DSL service from the phone companies.

Wheeler – Argued for better broadband and more competition.

During the Obama Administration, the FCC set the bar higher. With dissent from the Republican minority, the FCC raised the minimum speed that could be defined as broadband to 25/3Mbps, immediately excluding most DSL and wireless connections. In 2015, former FCC Chairman Thomas Wheeler specifically excluded satellite and wireless connections from that formula, despite objections from FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai. Particularly under Wheeler’s watch, the Democratic majority frequently complained about inadequate broadband and competition, and used Section 706 as its authority to override state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that placed onerous restrictions on municipal broadband networks. Wheeler felt such laws were anti-competitive, but the courts ruled the FCC exceeded its authority and overturned his pre-emption orders.

Under the Trump Administration, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai seems to be headed down a similar path taken during the Bush Administration, which was optimistic about the state of broadband service and, as a result, applied a lot less pressure on the telecommunications industry.

Chairman Pai is seeking to overturn current Net Neutrality regulations and seems ready to support efforts to undermine the broadband speed standard established by his predecessor. That would allow mobile/wireless companies to offer 10/1Mbps speed and have it qualify as broadband service. Even better, ISPs — wired or wireless — would be considered “competitive” in many cases, even if only one provider offered service in the area.

Pai’s proposal was met with serious objections from Democratic Commissioner Mignon Clyburn who claimed even the current 25/3Mbps standard no longer met the definition of “advanced telecommunications capability.”

“The statute defines advanced telecommunications capability as broadband that is capable of ‘originat[ing] and receiv[ing] high-quality voice, data, graphics, and video telecommunications. High-definition video conferencing is squarely within the rubric of ‘originating and receiving high-quality… video telecommunications,’ yet the 25/3Mbps standard we propose would not even allow for a single stream of 1080p video conferencing, much less 4K video conferencing. This does not even consider that multiple devices are likely utilizing a single fixed connection, or the multiple uses of a mobile device.”

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Pai: Wants broadband providers and the competitive marketplace to determine whether broadband is good enough.

AEI dismissed the entire debate, claiming the only people who will respond to the FCC’s request for comments on the subject will be “pundits, special interests, and companies with skin in the game.”

Instead, AEI proposes the FCC rely on watching customers navigate their broadband options — a monopoly for some, duopoly for many others — and only address problems if something unusual emerges. AEI’s test is to see if “a location or demographic is inexplicably different and purchases less than would be expected.”

If something odd does happen in a particular area, AEI argues there could only be two reasons for that:

  • Barriers to competition;
  • Outdated government regulations and policies standing in the way of progress.

Missing from AEI’s list of possibilities is the presence of an abusive monopoly provider, a comfortable duopoly among two providers with no interest from a third competitor to enter the market, or an area served by two lackluster providers that won’t invest in their networks.

AEI’s test depends entirely on gathering data about what internet services are available for sale in any particular area now and then study who is buying what. But this does not measure customer satisfaction or consider whether those speed tiers and prices are adequate.

Under AEI’s test, “if a geographic area does not have broadband, the FCC could use the results of its customer study to determine what customers in the area would likely find valuable. Then, the FCC could do a cost-benefit study and an economic feasibility study — and conduct a reverse auction if a subsidy is potentially needed — to determine what, if any, financial incentive might be appropriate for the area.”

In other words, the same think tank that has been on record for decades opposing government subsidies to private companies now wants to offer telecom companies government funding to build what would become largely unregulated privately-owned broadband networks that would run with little or no oversight.

AEI’s willingness to let “customers express their opinions through their purchases” is hardly an adequate replacement for current broadband policies designed to keep the U.S. competitive with the rest of the world and ensure adequate service and competition. As any cable subscriber knows, you can subscribe to Comcast or Charter/Spectrum and still loathe your options and want something better. AEI doesn’t appear interested in seeing you get those options, much less preserve what little oversight, consumer protection, and broadband benchmarks we have now. Neither does current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.

Democrats Quiz FCC’s Ajit Pai About Favorable Treatment of Sinclair Broadcasting

Phillip Dampier August 14, 2017 Public Policy & Gov't No Comments

Sinclair’s deal with Tribune will make them by far the largest TV station ownership group in the country, owning 16% of the TV stations in the U.S. (Image: Mother Jones)

After a hard-hitting piece analyzing the close ties between President Donald J. Trump, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, and Sinclair Broadcasting appeared in this morning’s New York Times, a group of leading House Democrats serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee have written Mr. Pai asking for answers about his possible “favorable treatment” of Sinclair Broadcasting since becoming Chairman of the FCC.

These reports, according to the letter, raise two overarching questions:

  • Whether actions taken by the FCC under your leadership show a pattern of preferential treatment for Sinclair, and
  • Whether a series of interactions between your office, the Trump Campaign and Trump Administration, and Sinclair demonstrate inappropriate coordination.

The letter’s signers — all Democrats — are Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (ranking member of the full committee), Rep. Mike Doyle (ranking member of the Communications and Technology Subcommittee), and Rep. Diana DeGette (ranking member, Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations).

The 12-page letter presents Pai with multiple examples of potential collusion and favorable treatment of a television station group that airs mandatory pro-Trump Administration commentaries on all of its local newscasts, employs a former Trump campaign aide, has sought private meetings with administration officials , and has made substantial campaign contributions.

The Times article appears to be the source for most of the concern expressed in the letter, which lays out multiple issues and seeks Mr. Pai’s comments and explanations.

At the beginning of the Trump Administration, the Democrats claim, Mr. Pai has undertaken a number of actions in his role as Chairman of the FCC that fall squarely in line with the corporate expansion agenda at Sinclair Broadcast Group. Among the most important was Mr. Pai’s sudden decision to bring a party-line vote to reinstate an archaic UHF Discount rule, which allows a company to downgrade the reach of its UHF stations for the purposes of determining if it is within the FCC’s limit of one station owner reaching no more than 39% of the country. This “discount” was established at a time when analog television signals on the UHF band (Channels 14+) were at a distinct coverage disadvantage over stations occupying the VHF (Channels 2-13) band. The discount was retired after the U.S. switched to digital television broadcasting, which largely eliminated this coverage disparity.

TV station owners saw a revival of the UHF Discount not as a way to deal with reception differences, but rather as a loophole to launch new acquisitions by discounting the coverage of their current stations. Only one company – Sinclair Broadcasting – stood to gain the most from the reinstatement of the UHF Discount. Almost on cue, two weeks after Pai brought this obscure rule up and reinstated it on a 2-1 vote, Sinclair announced a blockbuster merger with Tribune to acquire stations that will allow Sinclair to cover 70% of the United States, a number impossible to achieve without Pai’s support for the UHF Discount.

Democrats argue this was not what Congress intended, and it allows one station owner to own and control approximately double the number of stations the ownership cap would normally prohibit. They argue such a deal will reduce the diversity of media voices in communities across the country, especially in markets where Sinclair will own and operate more than one television station.

The New York Times provides this chart illustrating the vast expansion of stations if it wins control of Tribune Media.

The Democrats are also upset the FCC, under Pai’s leadership, appears to be in a hurry to get this deal reviewed and likely approved. It set a review window of just 30 days for public comment, considerably shorter than earlier, less controversial acquisition deals. Critics of the deal contend that the FCC is giving inadequate consideration of the deal’s lack of public interest benefits, and Sinclair’s application is vague and its claims are difficult to validate. Pai seems unconcerned, leading some to believe he intends to rubber stamp his approval with minimal conditions.

Ajit Pai, Chairman of U.S Federal Communications Commission. REUTERS/Eric Gaillard

Under Pai’s watch, the Democrats charge, Sinclair has already benefited from a ‘rush to approval’ mentality at the FCC. Sinclair’s earlier deal to acquire stations owned by the Bonten Media Group was also convenient, coming shortly after the FCC under Mr. Pai revoked guidance that would have required the FCC to closely scrutinize the transaction. The FCC granted the deal, despite the fact several of Bonten’s stations are in areas where Sinclair now holds operating agreements to manage other local stations. Large station groups have used these agreements as loopholes to effectively gain day-to-day control of stations without actually transferring their ownership.

The Democrats also argue that Sinclair is well positioned to be in the lead of Next Gen TV, ATSC 3.0 technology that will replace the current digital TV standard in the United States in the next few years. Sinclair is the biggest cheerleader of the new technology, and Mr. Pai coincidentally has put a rush on getting ATSC 3.0 approved and into the marketplace. ONE Media 3.0, a wholly owned subsidiary of Sinclair, just happens to own six critical patents essential for using the Next Gen TV standard. That means every station in the country moving to the next broadcast platform will have to pay royalties to Sinclair estimated in the billions.

As the Times reports, whenever Sinclair sought something from Washington as part of its corporate agenda, the FCC’s Mr. Pai quickly aligned himself and the FCC’s Republican majority to fulfill Sinclair’s wishes.

Rep. Frank Pallone, Jr. (D-N.J.) is ranking member of the House Energy & Commerce Committee.

The Democrats also question whether there is direct coordination between the Administration, Sinclair, and the FCC:

  • After the election, President Trump reportedly met with the Executive Chairman and former CEO of Sinclair and discussed changing FCC rules to help Sinclair. A news account stated that after the election, President Trump met with David Smith, Sinclair’s Executive Chairman and former CEO. According to this report, “potential FCC rule changes were discussed” after President Trump asked Mr. Smith, “What do you need to happen in your business?”

  • Before you became Chairman of the FCC, you reportedly met with then President-elect Trump in New York. Reports indicate that on January 16 of this year, you met with then-President-elect Trump in New York in a meeting that did not appear on your official calendar.

  • In March, shortly after you became Chairman of the FCC, you met with President Trump in the Oval Office. An FCC spokesperson confirmed that the meeting occurred, but did not indicate what was discussed during the meeting. When asked directly about your meetings with President Trump, you declined to disclose what you discussed, saying “I am not at liberty to say.”

  • The week after the election, you reportedly attended a company conference for Sinclair’s general managers, during which you met with Sinclair’s CEO. According to a Politico report, in January of this year, you met with Sinclair’s former CEO, David Smith, as well as the newly named Sinclair CEO, Chris Ripley.

  • The President’s campaign reportedly “struck a deal” with Sinclair to “secure better media coverage.” This arrangement came to light after the election, when Jared Kushner reportedly revealed that in exchange for access to then-candidate Trump and his campaign, “Sinclair would broadcast Trump interviews across the country without commentary.” Sinclair representatives have defended this arrangement by claiming that the Clinton campaign was offered the option for extended interviews with local anchors as well, but did not accept.

  • In April, Boris Epshteyn, who was “most recently Special Assistant to The President and Assistant Communications Director for Surrogate Operations for the Executive Office of President Trump,” and formerly a “senior advisor to the Trump campaign,” joined Sinclair to provide on-air political commentary. Epshteyn’s segments are “must-run” programming for Sinclair stations, with nine segments airing per week. One report has criticized the segments as “propaganda” and reporting on Sinclair’s selection of “must-run” programming has raised “suggestions that Sinclair pushed right-leaning views.”

The Democrats are requesting Mr. Pai answer their letter and provide additional information no later than Aug. 28.

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