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House Democrats Blast Telecom Companies for Data Caps, Rate Hikes

House Energy & Commerce Committee

Democrats serving on the House Energy & Commerce Committee today blasted the nation’s largest internet service providers for price increases and data caps placed on consumer broadband services at the height of a global pandemic, questioning the industry’s commitment to keeping Americans connected.

“Over the last ten months, internet service became even more essential as many Americans were forced to transition to remote work and online school. Broadband networks seem to have largely withstood these massive shifts in usage,” wrote Democratic Reps. Frank Pallone, Jr (N.J.), Mike Doyle (Penn.) and Jerry McNerney (Calif.). “Unfortunately, what cannot be overlooked or underestimated is the extent to which families without home internet service — particularly those with school-aged children at home — have been left out and left behind.”

Pallone

The congressmen questioned nine providers after reading media coverage of rate hikes and the implementation of data caps by Comcast and the potential for Charter Spectrum to impose data caps as early as May 2021.

“This is an egregious action at a time when households and small businesses across the country need high-speed, reliable broadband more than ever but are struggling to make ends meet,” the three Democrats wrote.

In March 2020, many cable and phone companies relaxed a number of restrictions on customers in response to the emerging COVID-19 pandemic. Many volunteered to suspend data cap overlimit fees, provide affordable broadband options to the economically disadvantaged, offer free months of service, open restricted Wi-Fi hotspots, and discontinue collection efforts or service disconnects on customers falling behind on bills.

Despite the pledge, consumers filed a significant number of complaints with the Federal Communications Commission alleging the companies broke their promises, by far most often for not following through on free service offers or continuing aggressive collections of past due bills and shutting off service.

Consumer complaints filed with the FCC regarding the “Keep America Connected” pledge, received from March-November 2020. (Source: FCC)

The Energy and Commerce Committee has now sent letters to the CEOs of many providers, seeking answers to these questions as part of ongoing oversight of the industry:

  • Did the company participate in the FCC’s “Keep Americans Connected” pledge?
  • Has the company increased prices for fixed or mobile consumer internet and fixed or phone service since the start of the pandemic, or do they plan to raise prices on such plans within the next six months?
  • Prior to March 2020, did any of the company’s service plans impose a maximum data consumption threshold on its subscribers?
  • Since March 2020, has the company modified or imposed any new maximum data consumption thresholds on service plans, or do they plan to do so within the next six months?
  • Did the company stop disconnecting customers’ internet or telephone service due to their inability to pay during the pandemic?
  • Does the company offer a plan designed for low-income households, or a plan established in March or later to help students and families with connectivity during the pandemic?
  • Beyond service offerings for low-income customers, what steps is the company currently taking to assist individuals and families facing financial hardship due to circumstances related to COVID-19?

The full letters are available below:

Altice USA

AT&T

CenturyLink/Lumen

Charter Communications

Comcast Cable Communications

Cox Communications

Frontier Communications

T-Mobile US

Verizon Communications

FCC Votes Unanimously to Expand 5 GHz Wi-Fi Frequencies Despite Auto Industry Protests

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. communications regulator on Wednesday approved a plan to allow a growing number of wireless devices to use part of a spectrum previously set aside for automakers to develop methods for vehicles to communicate with each other, a decision that the Transportation Department warned could result in “thousands of accidents.”

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 5-0 to split the spectrum block set aside for auto safety. Over the objections of automakers and some U.S. agencies, the FCC decision finalized a plan announced last year to divide a block of the 5.9 GHz spectrum band that was reserved in 1999 for automakers to develop technology called DSRC, but has so far gone largely unused. Under today’s decision, a 45 MHz portion of the band — 5.850GHz to 5.895GHz will be reallocated to unlicensed Wi-Fi services and made available for consumer use. Consumers may have to purchase new equipment to take advantage of the new frequencies.

45 MHz of the wireless auto band, shown in green, will join the 5 GHz Wi-Fi band shown in blue. Automakers will still be able to use 30 MHz of frequencies from 5.895-5.925 GHz.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said there is “a pressing need for us to allocate additional spectrum” for Wi-Fi, noting the coronavirus pandemic underscored “consumers need access and more bandwidth to be able to engage in telework, remote learning, telehealth, and other broadband-related services.”

Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao had warned the FCC decision could result in “thousands more deaths annually on road and millions more injuries than would be the case otherwise.”

Major cable, telecom and content companies back the FCC proposal to open most of the spectrum band to Wi-Fi use.

Comcast Corp praised the FCC vote, saying Wi-Fi is “central to American homes, schools, and workplaces and carries more broadband traffic than all other wireless technologies combined.”

Automakers favor using the spectrum for developing technology to allow vehicles to exchange data about location, speed and direction.

House of Representatives Transportation Committee chairman Peter DeFazio called the decision “a gift to corporate interests at the expense of public safety,” adding it “will undermine decades of development and over a billion public dollars that the transportation community has invested in these technologies.”

The technology has previously been offered on just one General Motors Co vehicle. Government studies have suggested that, if widely adopted among, it could prevent at least 600,000 U.S. crashes annually.

GM said “the FCC has moved towards jeopardizing roadway safety.”

The FCC plans to transition the upper 30 megahertz from DSRC to enable a different automotive communications technology called Cellular Vehicle-to-Everything and use the other 45 megahertz for wireless use. Safety advocates question if the new technology will work.

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama and David Gregorio)

Republican Majority Votes 3-2 to Maintain Repeal of Obama-Era Net Neutrality Rules

Phillip Dampier October 27, 2020 Net Neutrality, Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The U.S. Federal Communications Commission voted 3-2 on Tuesday to maintain its 2017 repeal of Obama-era net neutrality rules, even after a federal court directed a review of some provisions of the repeal.

The 2015 net neutrality rules barred internet service providers (ISPs) from blocking or slowing internet content or offering paid “fast lanes.” Under President Donald Trump, the 2017 FCC order granted ISPs sweeping powers to recast how Americans use the internet, as long as they disclose changes.

A federal appeals court in October 2019 largely upheld the FCC’s repeal of the rules, but ordered the agency to reconsider the repeal’s impact on public safety; regulations on attachments to utility poles; and the FCC’s ability to provide subsidies for broadband service. The FCC majority opted to leave the order unchanged.

The net neutrality repeal was effective in June 2018. ISPs have not changed how users access the internet, but consumer groups fear that they could move to raise prices or slow speeds selectively for some customers.

“It is patently obvious to all but the most devoted members of the net neutrality cult that the case against the (net neutrality repeal) was a sham,” FCC Chairman Ajit Pai said Tuesday.

ISPs and other advocates of the net neutrality repeal say the new rules have boosted investment. Consumer groups and other critics of the dispute the assertion that loosening net neutrality rules led to new investment.

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, said, “this agency is not interested in getting it right. Instead, it doubles down, rather than recognizing the realities of the world around us.”

Democrats have made net neutrality repeal a campaign issue. Presidential candidate Joe Biden, who was Obama’s vice president, is expected if he wins to designate an FCC chair who would move to would reinstate net neutrality.

Senator Ed Markey, a Democrat, said “without net neutrality protections, it’s just a matter of time before big broadband providers start raising prices, slowing down internet speeds, and making it harder for families, small business, and students to access the opportunities to recover and rebuild from this pandemic.”

Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by David Gregorio

Breaking News: FCC Chairman Ramming Through Vote to Reaffirm Death of Net Neutrality Before Election

Pai’s parting gift

Fearing the potential of Joe Biden replacing Donald Trump as president in next month’s election, Federal Communications Commission chairman Ajit Pai will ram through a final vote to kill net neutrality while Republicans still have a majority on the Commission.

At the final commissioners’ meeting on Oct. 27, just days before the U.S. election, Pai intends to take up net neutrality once again, primarily to deal with a demand by the D.C. Court of Appeals to address outstanding issues that came up when Republicans rescinded net neutrality rules that were put in place by the FCC under the Obama Administration. To drive the final stake into the heart of a free and open internet, Pai plans to quickly dismiss three issues of concern to the Court:

  • how net neutrality impacts public safety;
  • if it affected how the FCC deals with pole attachment regulation;
  • if it hurts the FCC Lifeline program’s ability to offer broadband to low-income Americans.

In Pai’s view, these are basically non-issues of concern and he intends to bring the matter before the Commission for a widely predicted party-line vote affirming the death of net neutrality policies under the Trump Administration.

Pai took to Medium.com to write a smug and condescending editorial about why the pro-corporate deregulation policies he and his Republican colleagues have supported over the last four years have made American broadband great again. He called net neutrality supporters a bunch of “Washington politicians, far-left special-interest groups, Hollywood stars, and Silicon Valley tech giants.” He blasted the media for “scaring the American people” about what would happen after Trump’s FCC killed the open internet order. He also claimed defeating net neutrality would lead to a renaissance of new investment in broadband.

In fact, many broadband providers elected to curtail investment even before the COVID-19 pandemic arrived. Charter, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have all reduced investment in residential wired broadband services, in part because of a lack of competitive marketplace. Pai, a former lawyer for Verizon, has spent the last four years making life very comfortable for the country’s largest internet service providers. He eliminated mandated competition in set-top boxes, did nothing to stop data caps, eliminated net neutrality protections, and helped enact new rules allowing mobile providers to place future cell towers and other equipment in places that have never been acceptable before.

Most broadband providers today only compete on price for new customers. Once those promotions expire, customers face punishing bills. Internet pricing drew renewed scrutiny during the early days of the pandemic when schools and employers moved to at-home study and work. Many found internet pricing of $70+ a month unaffordable, while other suburban and exurban employees discovered they could not get suitably fast internet service at any price.

Pai’s tenure as chairman has been four years of smug arrogance and a complete disinterest in the input of consumers. Millions have told the FCC to leave net neutrality policies in place. Pai and his Republican colleagues ignored them. The Republican commissioners have delivered speeches at some of the most partisan right-wing groups imaginable, but won’t respond to ordinary Americans looking for actual evidence of competition and consumer protection. For much of this year, Pai’s two Republican colleagues have spent much of their time on Twitter pursuing their own agendas. Commissioner O’Rielly has made closing down low power community pirate radio stations his obsession. At least that is covered under the FCC’s mandate. Commissioner Carr has spent his time on Twitter complaining about people being mean to President Trump on social media, his obsession with China and freedom of speech, and his suspicions about the World Health Organization (WHO).

This final attempt to destroy net neutrality just before the election is the ultimate insult, one that Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel fumed about:

“This is crazy. The internet should be open and available for all. That’s what net neutrality is about. It’s why people from across this country rose up to voice their frustration and anger with the Federal Communications Commission when it decided to ignore their wishes and roll back net neutrality. Now the courts have asked us for a do-over. But instead of taking this opportunity to right what this agency got wrong, we are going to double down on our mistake.”

“The FCC is going to make it easier for broadband companies to block websites, slow speeds, and dictate what we can do and where we can go online. It’s insane that this is happening now, during a pandemic when we rely on internet access for so much of day-to-day life. It’s also cruel that this is our priority when this crisis has exposed just how vast our digital divide is and how much more work we have to do for broadband to reach 100% of us—no matter who we are or where we live.”

Trump Nominates Ally to Push FCC Towards Social Media Regulation

Phillip Dampier September 16, 2020 Public Policy & Gov't, Reuters No Comments

Simington

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – President Donald Trump, pressing for new social media regulations, plans to nominate a senior administration official to be a member of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), the White House said on Tuesday.

The nomination of Nathan Simington, a senior adviser at the Commerce Department’s National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA), comes after the White House abruptly announced in early August it was withdrawing the nomination of Republican FCC Commissioner Mike O’Rielly to serve another term.

Trump issued an executive order in May requiring the NTIA to petition the FCC asking the commission to impose new regulations on social media moderation practices after Twitter Inc warned readers to fact-check his posts about unsubstantiated allegations of fraud in mail-in voting.

Simington helped draft the May executive order, the Washington Post reported.

By contrast, O’Rielly expressed skepticism about whether the FCC had authority to issue new regulations covering social media companies. In July, he said the “the First Amendment protects us from limits on speech imposed by the government – not private actors – and we should all reject demands, in the name of the First Amendment, for private actors to curate or publish speech in a certain way.”

O’Rielly, who has not commented on the White House withdrawal of his name, congratulated Simington Tuesday in a Twitter post on his nomination “and offer best wishes for a smooth confirmation process and successful term.”

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai opened NTIA’s petition to public comment. The comment period expires this week. He has declined to comment on its merits.

A group representing major internet companies including Facebook Inc and Amazon.com Inc urged the FCC to reject the petition, saying the effort “is misguided, lacks grounding in law, and poses serious public policy concerns.”

NTIA asked the FCC to limit protections for social media companies under Section 230, a provision of the 1996 Communications Decency Act that shields social media companies from liability for content posted by their users and allows them to remove lawful but objectionable posts.

Reporting by David Shepardson and Eric Beech; Editing by Peter Cooney and Christopher Cushing

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