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Art Brodsky

Art Brodsky

Posted: June 18, 2010 11:34 AM

The Uncommon Courage of the FCC

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One of Ernest Hemingway's more enduring quotes is the one defining courage as "grace under pressure." For the past couple of months, no officials in Washington have been under such sustained pressure as Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Julius Genachowski and his Democratic colleagues, Commissioners Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn. On June 17, they demonstrated the essence of Hemingway's courage.

It's hard to underestimate the ferocious assault on these commissioners, who acted to protect the public interest and the interest of the U.S. economy through the simple mechanism of trying to bring back some rational, minimal regulation for the connections that link consumers with the Internet.

They faced down the unlimited resources some of the most powerful companies in the country, able to buy or bamboozle a majority of the members of Congress to accept their positions. Many of those 70 odd Democrats who signed a letter opposing the FCC's attempt to bring some rational policy to the high-speed Internet (broadband) market have the distinctions of selling out President Obama and hurting their constituents at the same time all for, what, some coin this election cycle. The Republicans who signed the letter simply sold out their constituents to pay homage to their corporate masters.

If a company can go to a normally progressive senator and get that legislator to sign a letter advocating a policy that would leave her rural constituents out in the cold for universal service support, that company will do it. If the legislator (or her staff) is oblivious enough to sign, why should the company be responsible for the result? After all, the company had already paid for a resolution in the state legislature, so why not get another return on its investment? If they can spread the word that "investment" will suffer and cost job, then why not spread it? If they can bring out the big guns and have AT&T Chairman Randall Stephenson resort to the classic bullying threats not to invest if a regulatory agency acts, they will do it. In other words, their wired network would look like the overburdened wireless service and the incompetent attempts to sell the latest iPhone.

It doesn't matter that the "investment" threats and bullying are nonsense. Companies invest, hire and layoff, based on their own internal financial goals. It was disappointing to hear Republican commissioners ignore these financial facts of life. Ask the tens of thousands of telecom workers laid off in the midst of near-total deregulation how things will get worse if the FCC enacts the meekest of rules. It was disappointing to hear of the faith in the market which has let down so many consumers. Just the other day, a fellow I know who lives in rural central Maryland complained that he can only get Comcast Internet service. Verizon's DSL isn't offered because he and his neighbors live too far from a central office. Comcast service is continually on the blink, and the company sends out techs who know less than he does. Mythical markets don't help him.

It doesn't matter that most of the political opposition is clueless about the issues and have no idea of the weight of the letters they are signing. It's the perception that counts. Once those letters are signed, they land like a ton of bricks at the FCC. Of course, the principled-sounding argument that it should be up to Congress to determine the policy toward broadband - and not the FCC - just got torpedoed by Reps. Joe Barton (R-TX) and Cliff Stearns (R-FL). After weeks of saying the FCC shouldn't act because Congress should or will, those two sent a letter saying they "do not see any urgency to legislate" on broadband issues. Barton and Stearns don't want the FCC to protect consumers and to expand universal service, and they don't want anyone else to either. (Between that letter and his BP "shakedown" comment for which he had to apologize, and which almost cost him the top GOP spot on the Committee, Barton had quite a day.)

To their credit, the commissioners faced down that barrage of bull and proceeded today with their action to open an inquiry into how the FCC should deal with broadband access. They did so with dignity and precision.

Clyburn took on the bogus "investment" threats by saying, "the public relations campaign being waged by some may itself be the catalyst for doubts about investment. There should be no surprise when the all-out effort to spin the Chairman's proposal as one that entails extensive regulation scares off potential investors. If you yell 'The sky is falling!' enough times, people will eventually take cover." AT&T still stuck to that line following the Commission meeting. Go figure.

Copps took on the greatest canard, the one pushed by industry through right-wing media and friendly politicians, and utterly destroyed it. Facts are pesky things for the Glenn Becks of the world, but here it is: "Despite all the spin to the contrary, we are not talking--even remotely--about regulating the Internet. We are talking about meaningful oversight of the infrastructure and services that allow Americans to get to the Internet. This isn't about government regulating the Internet--it's about making sure that consumers, rather than a handful of entrenched incumbents, have maximum control over their access to the Internet." It couldn't be more clear, although in the days and weeks ahead we will hear undoubtedly about how the FCC could regulate the rest of the Internet or could take control over speech - not that they are.

Genachowski explained quite clearly the Commission's dilemma in the wake of the April 6 decision in the U.S. Appeals Court for the D.C. Circuit which upset the FCC's shaky legal grounds for dealing with Internet access services, and laid out what the FCC action would do, or not do. He said: Our pro-investment, pro-innovation, pro-competition, pro-consumer policies remain unchanged and they remain essential for broadband in America. The purpose of the proceeding we launch today is to make sure those policies rest on a solid legal foundation by exploring and addressing the technical, legal questions the court decision raises."

To hear the industry and their lackeys, one would think the government not only is regulating the Internet, but also taking it over. The fact is, both before the FCC acts and after, private industry will still own what owns. This is about the attempt by a responsible government agency to reassert fundamental authority that was mistakenly given away.

As Clyburn said: "But I can understand why powerful companies balk at government oversight. They view any government authority as a threat to their unbridled freedom. Indeed, if it was up to them, we would not enact rules; but rather, rely on 'voluntary organizations and forums' made up solely of industry personnel to give us advice on how to serve as a backstop for consumers. I suppose one benefit of this model is that I could significantly shorten my workday."

The pressure on the FCC will not stop. As the comments are filed and a decision nears, it will only ratchet up. The telecom companies will spend millions more on compliant politicians and bogus studies. The lobbying reports for the second quarter should be quite revealing. AT&T alone spent $6 million in the first quarter of this year.

Mark Twain once wrote, "Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear--not absence of fear." There is certainly much that Genachowski, Copps and Clyburn could fear from the battering they have taken, and will take, from industry and its acolytes. But they mastered that fear, and showed great courage today, and will again in the future.


 

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