FCC's Carr Still Pushing A Dumb Telecom Tax On 'Big Tech'
from the misdirection ahoy dept
A few months back we noted how FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr had taken to Newsweek to dust off a fifteen year old AT&T talking point. Namely that “big tech” companies get a “free ride” on telecom networks, and, as a result, should throw billions of dollars at “big telecom” for no real reason. You’ll recall it was this exact argument that launched the net neutrality debate, when former AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre proclaimed that Google wouldn’t be allowed to “ride his pipes for free.” Basically, telecom giants have long wanted somebody else to fund network builds they routinely leave half finished despite billions in subsidies.
Carr, who has been trying to seed this idea in the press and policy circles for months, was back at it again last week, pointing to a new Oracle-funded study that suggests funding broadband expansion via a tax on advertising revenue:
#NEW: Economic study bolsters my call for ending Big Tech’s free ride on the Internet.
Requiring Big Tech to pay a fair share would not only a eliminate a 30% charge from your monthly telecom bill, it would greatly reduce consumers’ costs overall.https://t.co/YQTa1nY8JJ https://t.co/OyH1d0HKBV pic.twitter.com/gxcqIpmWF7
— Brendan Carr (@BrendanCarrFCC) September 15, 2021
As usual with Carr, there are a few problems here.
The study in question took a look at the FCC’s USF system, which helps subsidize broadband expansion and provides some small broadband, wireless, or phone discounts (a paltry $9.25 per month, to be specific) to low income Americans. At no point does the study actually suggest companies like Google get a “free ride” on the internet. Nor does it suggest “big tech” alone is responsible for funding the program. It does recommend that taxing bloated adtech revenues in general might be a good way to shore up lagging USF contributions.
But the study also recommends several other things, like helping ensure broadband subsidies are useful by raising the FCC’s current pathetic definition of broadband (25 Mbps down, 3 Mbps up) to something modern and useful, something Carr has actively opposed. Why has he opposed it? Because the telecom industry opposes it. Why does the telecom industry oppose it? Because a higher standard would reveal market failure, a lack of competition, and how that results in substandard and expensive service. It’s a story as old as time at this point.
There are a few things that are true. One, the USF does need more funding. As the report notes, the flatlining level of broadband subscriber growth (because of a saturated market) means that just levying USF fees on broadband and phone lines doesn’t scale with funding needs. It’s not unreasonable to consider expanding the contribution base to the profit-rich adtech sector in general, but again that’s just one idea of several. And Carr distorts it in strange ways that signal he’s not really approaching any of this in good faith.
One, the idea that Google gets a “free ride” on the internet is a bullshit, antiquated talking point telecom giants have been pushing for years. A company like Google spends billions of dollars on their own transit, cloud, and broadband infrastructure. Hell, Google even owns its own residential ISP (Google Fiber). And as the freshly unredacted version of Epic’s antitrust lawsuit against Google shows, Google has (stupidly, frankly) been paying wireless carriers billions of dollars since 2009 simply to not compete with its app store. There’s no free ride with U.S. telecom. Ever. Claims to the contrary are just nonsense.
If you’re familiar with telecom problems and serious about fixing them (and again, Carr is not), your first impulse should not be “make Netflix and Google throw money at it.” Your first topic of discussion should be the endless tax breaks, subsidies, and regulatory favors (see: killing net neutrality) we throw at telecom giants for little to nothing.
Time after time after time entrenched telecom giants promise they’ll cover the world in cheap, next-generation broadband and amazing jobs if only they get “X,” be that merger approval, more subsidies, deregulation, whatever. And time after time after time those promises prove absolutely hollow. Hell, Carr and Trump’s FCC majority is fresh off a scandal in which it doled out more than $9 billion dollars to companies that were gaming the entire FCC process, nabbing huge sums of money by making promises that made no coherent sense.
Carr not only doesn’t bring any of that up here, he never brings it up. He always actively ignores all of telecom’s warts, including the indisputable fact that U.S. broadband is heavily regionally monopolized, resulting in high prices that harm everybody, particularly low income Americans. Like Trump FCC boss Ajit Pai, he’s literally incapable of acknowledging the telecom sector has any such flaws, which should set off alarm bells. If you’re a telecom regulator who can’t admit the telecom sector has major flaws, yet is always incessantly fixated on the flaws of companies telecom has a beef with and you don’t regulate (Pai had this very same mysterious habit), I’d say that’s a pretty solid warning sign you may not be operating consistently and objectively as a policymaker.
Again, I think the telecom and media (Rupert) industries have been working hard in DC for several years to exploit the recent (and usually very valid) animosity against big tech to push several agendas. One is to saddle companies whose ad revenues they covet with additional layers of obligation and regulation, while removing oversight of their own sectors (see: the elimination of media consolidation and net neutrality rules by Carr and Pai). The other is, which is a 20 year old ploy at this point, to push the idea that other companies and industries should be giving them billions in additional dollars for networks that mysteriously always wind up only half deployed.