from the this-probably-won't-go-well dept
Earlier this year, we noted how FCC Commissioner Brendan Carr had launched a bad faith effort suggesting that “big tech” gets a “free ride” on the internet, and should be forced to fund broadband expansion. Carr’s argument, that companies like Google and Netflix somehow get a free ride (they don’t) and should “pay their fair share,” is a fifteen year old AT&T lobbyist talking point. AT&T’s goal has always been to “double dip”; as in not only get paid for bandwidth by consumers and businesses, but to get an additional troll toll simply for, well, existing.
AT&T has long tried to offload its (often neglected or half-completed) network build and maintenance costs to somebody else to make investors happy. That somebody else is usually taxpayers, who’ve thrown billions in pointless tax breaks and dubious regulatory favors at the company in exchange for fiber networks that are always (so mysteriously!) left half completed and jobs that never arrive. Now AT&T (and their broadcaster allies) want tech giants to pay as well.
Over at the right wing Washington Examiner, you can see how this effort is framed in order to sell it to the public and regulators:
“The Federal Communications Commission is looking to hit Big Tech companies with new regulatory fees related to their high use of broadband facilitated by the agency â€” a sign of Washington’s growing skepticism of Silicon Valley wealth and power.”
You’re given no indication that this is a telecom (AT&T) or broadcasting (the National Association of Broadcasters) bad faith political play. Carr (read: AT&T’s policy folks) had originally suggested in a carefully seeded editorial that tech companies should be forced to pay into the Universal Service Fund, which helps fund broadband expansion to schools and low-income communities. Now, Carr’s argument has also been piggybacked onto by broadcasters, who want tech companies to pay a tax simply to use unlicensed spectrum (like Wi-Fi hardware). Fortunately, the Examiner at least includes experts who point out the idea is stupid:
“Unlicensed spectrum was first established by the commission in 1985, and allows the general public to freely use, without a license, services such as Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth waves, garage door openers, and other wireless technologies.
â€œThe FCC is asking the public if we think fees on unlicensed spectrum is a good idea or not,â€ said Harold Feld, a telecom policy expert and lawyer at the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. â€œAnd Iâ€™m here to say itâ€™s a bad idea. In the spirit of Halloween, I plan to take a chainsaw to it.”
So I think the FCC is considering this route because it’s true the USF needs more money if we’re going to help make sure low-income kids and schools have decent connectivity. The problem is that the FCC’s proposal is written in such a way that it sounds like you could potentially be seeing annoying new taxes on Wi-Fi networks, Bluetooth devices, garage door openers, and more. The other problem is the core motivation here is by telecom and broadcast companies who simply want to offload their costs to somebody else. If they’re the ones writing the proposal (and it sounds like they are), the end product isn’t going to be particularly balanced or productive.
But to me the bigger problem is that if we’re genuinely interested in shoring up broadband funding and expanding access, we should first be targeting the billions upon billions in tax breaks, regulator favors, merger approvals, and other perks we give to telecom and broadcast giants (in Comcast and AT&T’s case one in the same) in exchange for jack shit. The idea that we waste billions by throwing it mindlessly at regional monopolies seems like a good place to start if you’re serious about reform. But please take a moment to notice that this idea never gets mentioned by folks like Carr. That’s fairly telling.
Nothing gets fixed in U.S. broadband (especially affordability and access issues) without addressing regional monopolization and the state and federal corruption that protects it. But not only do we not do that, if you watch regulators and lawmakers on both sides of the aisle, they can barely even candidly acknowledge it’s even a problem. As a baseline (and it has been the baseline for 30 straight years) that’s not a great recipe for success.