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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.”

Telecom Industry Lobbyist Gets Friendly Reception on C-SPAN

The cable industry’s public affairs network — C-SPAN, gave a friendly reception to a top telecom industry lobbyist over the weekend, responding to soft ball questions about rural broadband and telecommunications public policy debates.

Jonathan Spalter, president and CEO of USTelecom appeared on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” to answer questions about broadband service in the era of COVID-19. USTelecom’s members, primarily telephone companies, have been strong proponents for government funding of rural broadband expansion, are opposed to telecom industry regulation and net neutrality policies, and argues that the more oversight and regulation the industry deals with, the less investment Wall Street will direct towards broadband networks.

Spalter was asked about how American broadband networks handled the work/learn-from-home requirements during the coronavirus pandemic. Spalter said networks handled the increased traffic well, but noted many rural Americans still lack access to high-speed internet. Some Democrats have proposed regulating broadband service as a utility to deal with issues of access and affordability, an idea that Spalter rejects.

“To wrap it in the red tape of regulatory strictures, the overhang of bureaucracy that would be required if we were to make it a utility, would take us backward,” Spalter said, adding he prefers “light touch” regulation. But Spalter had no objection to spending taxpayer dollars to pay for-profit telephone companies to expand broadband service in high-cost rural areas. Spalter called estimates that it would cost $100 billion to bring high speed internet service to all Americans “adequate.”

Jonathan Spalter, USTelecom’s president and CEO, talked about the coronavirus’s impact on telecommunications, regulatory issues, and solving the problems of rural internet access. (28:52)

AT&T Exempts Its Own HBO Max Service from AT&T Wireless Caps

AT&T mobile customers can watch AT&T-owned HBO Max without fearing any impact on their data allowances, despite the fact competing services like Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, Hulu, and Netflix will not be given similar treatment.

The Verge confirmed with AT&T that customers with AT&T mobile service can watch an unlimited amount of HBO Max and not exceed data allowances or the soft cap of 22-50 GB a month that unlimited use plan customers have.

The practice of exempting some content from data caps is known as “zero rating” and critics of the practice contend it is an “end run” around net neutrality. AT&T defends itself claiming HBO Max is paying AT&T to sponsor customer usage.

“According to an AT&T executive familiar with the matter, HBO Max is using AT&T’s ‘sponsored data’ system, which technically allows any company to pay to excuse its services from data caps,” according to the story in The Verge. “But since AT&T owns HBO Max, it’s just paying itself: the data fee shows up on the HBO Max books as an expense and on the AT&T Mobility books as revenue. For AT&T as a whole, it zeroes out. Compare that to a competitor like Netflix, which could theoretically pay AT&T for sponsored data, but it would be a pure cost.”

In short, AT&T is moving money from one of its pockets to the other, which may tangentially benefit AT&T mobile customers, but will also leave competing streaming services at a disadvantage, allowing AT&T to give preferential treatment to its own streaming service, which may discourage subscriptions to other services.

Ars Technica confirmed AT&T is not extending the data cap exemption to customers with AT&T DSL or Fiber service.

Telecom Industry Slashes Investments for 2020-2021; Focus on Profit Margins New Priority

Telecom companies are cutting investment in their networks despite promises by Republican members of the FCC that repeal of net neutrality would inspire increased investment.

Charter, Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon have surprised Wall Street with dramatic cutbacks in spending and investment in their networks, with one provider admitting improving profit margins are now a bigger priority.

As a result, Wall Street analysts are revising down capital expenditure (Capex) estimates in reports to their investor clients.

“Comcast and Charter missed [third quarter] expectations for Capex and guided 2019 lower than previously planned,” reported Nomura in a note to investors. “We have lowered our combined 2019 Capex forecast for Comcast and Charter from $14.6 billion to $14.2 billion.”

AT&T’s drop in network spending was the most dramatic among the country’s top telecom companies. AT&T has declared an end to fiber broadband expansion and slashed spending forecasts from the $23 billion the company spent this year to as little as $20 billion next year, despite claiming it would dramatically expand its 5G service to over two dozen cities over the next 12 months.

In a recent conference call with investors, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson said “now it’s time to reap the rewards of what we’ve been doing [and] begin to reward to shareholders these investments that we’ve been making over the last few years.”

Over the next three years, AT&T will pay shareholders $45 billion in dividends and spend $30 billion on buying back shares of AT&T stock to retire debt racked up buying Time Warner (Entertainment). In fact, AT&T will devote 50-75% of its free cash flow exclusively on retiring shares of AT&T stock, which is expected to benefit shareholders.

Verizon reported spending $4.4 billion in the third quarter on network upgrades, approximately $100 million less than expected. That is a concern because Verizon is trying to expand its costly 5G network, but is not devoting the investment dollars required to make such an upgrade happen without cutting investments elsewhere in the company. Verizon has told Wall Street analysts to expect stable Capex spending of $17-18 billion annually for 2019-2021. That will either mean Verizon’s 5G expansion will be modest or the phone company will have to slash investments in other areas, such as wireline, fiber to the home, or business services.

Many analysts expect 5G will be a top spending priority for AT&T and Verizon over the next several years, leaving little room in budgets for upkeep of the company’s legacy landline networks or its other products. Charter and Comcast have effectively stopped spending on large upgrade projects, also as part of improved profit-taking.

The spending realities are in direct conflict with the promises made by Republican members of the FCC. Trump-picked FCC Chairman Ajit Pai repeatedly claimed that banishing net neutrality would lead to significant increases in investment by the nation’s top telecom companies. In fact, the opposite has happened.

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