FCC Chairman Pai pushes for access over competition in rural broadband

You may be familiar with FCC Chairman Pai as the Trump-appointed monster working devotedly to dismantle your internet freedom and security, but that’s not really how it is. Pai is certainly on the unpopular (to say the least) side of the net neutrality debate, but in the matter of connecting underserved communities to the internet, he is sincere, as a couple of recent items on the FCC docket show.

The April open meeting, due to take place on the 20th, will largely focus on notices of proposed rulemaking and inquiry into reducing barriers to deployment of both wired and wireless infrastructure.

The reasoning is sound, I’ve heard from people on both sides of the issue. Red tape at the state and city level is a significant obstacle to companies looking to lay fiber, put up new wireless hardware and so on. Here, you might have to petition the local utility and two cable companies for access to a pole or line. Here, it might be as simple as an online form. It need hardly be said that this greatly favors incumbent companies.

Interestingly, the notice of inquiry is looking at “where the FCC could use its preemption authority to prevent the enforcement of state and local laws that inhibit broadband deployment.” Essentially, where should they exert federal clout, overwriting local law and markets?

This is especially interesting because Pai himself loudly argued against doing just that when it came to overriding state laws forbidding municipal broadband. Apparently the shoe is on the other foot now; I contacted the FCC for details on this.

Today brought two other actions clearly intended to further the cause of quick deployment of internet services to rural or underserved areas.

First is the establishment of the task force that will be overseeing bids and grants under the Connect America Fund and Mobility Fund, multi-billion dollar sources for deployment of new infrastructure. This isn’t some unprecedented move — these funds would have had to be managed one way or the other — but it would also be easy to background it rather than personally call out the expectations and people involved.

Second, and less straightforward, is the rollback of obligations on the part of Charter Cable. The company had agreed in the terms of its merger with Time Warner Cable and Bright House that it would roll out internet to 2 million new customers. But the FCC added a rider saying that half those connections must be “overbuilt,” or offered to people who have connections already.

Pai’s FCC reversed this rider, with the logic that 2 million new connections is better than 1 million new ones and 1 million added as a second choice. Makes sense, right? But the point of the overbuild requirement is to ensure there’s competition on a market that, especially with mergers like this one, is more and more dominated by giant companies.

Pai’s opposition to net neutrality regulations, among other things, is largely based on the idea that the market will figure these things out. In that case, one would think he would support providing an alternative ISP for a million people who (as is common) only have one, perhaps two, to choose from. But is that more important than getting decent broadband to some people who have none at all?

It’s revealing that Pai leans toward the latter option, toward greater connectivity, sooner — even if that comes at a cost to the competition in which he places so much trust.

Update: The FCC commissioners’ individual statements on the Charter requirement, published just after this went live, speak to this compromise. “In this Order we must decide either that competition must suffer or unserved Americans should go without broadband,” summarized Commissioner Clyburn. It’s the former for now, but hopefully these goals will not always be in competition.