Analysis Ajit Pai has left his position as head of the FCC – America's communications regulator – marking the end of an extraordinary four years where telecoms policy was dragged into the era of alternate facts. With sad inevitability, Pai has a list of his accomplishments in a similar fashion.
Just as he had done during his tenure, however, Pai has mirrored the 45th president’s approach and, rather than give an overview of actions to show a coherent drive and philosophy, has created the longest list possible. Bigger is better.
And so we have a 19-page document with 134 bullet points, many with sub-points. The end result is a mixture of tedium and propaganda with seemingly every program the FCC runs religiously inscribed, and the most controversial decisions whitewashed with tangential facts or ideological zeal.
As just one example, Pai’s unforgivably weak response to a devastating hurricane in Puerto Rico – something that mirrored President Trump’s own bizarre response that many have attributed to racism – is ignored. Instead the list heralds how the FCC awarded the island $127m “to expand, improve, and harden broadband networks,” and notes how Pai visited the island not once, but twice.
Pai fails to note the extensive, and justified, criticism leveled at him by his own commissioners, the Government Accountability Office, the press, and Puerto Ricans for doing too little, too late. He also refused a review into the FCC’s response: something that is a standard approach used to help the organization learn from mistakes.
Had it been run, the review might have queried why normal protocols weren’t followed. The fact he prevented such a probe reveals a darker truth: that Pai’s actions, or lack of them, were not the result of incompetence.
Pai will, of course, be most closely associated with the reversal of net neutrality rules. Not only did he undercut the FCC’s own rulings made just two years earlier but he pushed through a predetermined outcome, often with almost comic pretense to running a proper policy process.
The FCC not only failed to fix its flawed public comment process and systems but worked to make it more dysfunctional in order to disguise the true depth of feeling against the decision. It allowed organizations to upload hundreds of thousands of responses in one file, knowing from experience that it would be used to flood the comment period with fake comments. The cable industry promptly did exactly that. Later, Pai claimed, wrongly, that the FCC had been hit with a DDoS attack.
Pai also actively muddied the policy waters to disguise the fact that the only group that approved of reversing net neutrality protections were the cable giants that stood to gain most from it, along with the various think-tanks and lawmakers that the industry heavily supports.
So bye-bye, Mr Ajit Pai. You drove our policy into the levee and we still wonder whyREAD MORE
True to form, this shameful series of events is relayed in Pai’s list of accomplishments in the exact same series of focus-group, GOP-approved words he had repeated ad nauseum during the process: “Restored the longstanding, bipartisan light-tough regulatory framework that has fostered rapid Internet growth, openness, and freedom for nearly 20 years.”
Even in this list of accomplishments, however, his team instinctively reached for the aggressive counterpoint that had accompanied every exchange: “This decision reversed the prior FCC’s 2015 imposition of heavy-handed, utility-style regulation on broadband providers.” Policy making reduced to a mock battle over and over again.
Bye-bye Pai Pai
“Serving the American people as Chairman of the FCC has been the greatest honor of my professional life," he said.
"Over the past four years, we have delivered results for the American people, from narrowing the digital divide to advancing American leadership in 5G, from protecting consumers and national security to keeping Americans connected during the pandemic, from modernizing our media rules to making the agency more transparent and nimble. It has been a privilege to lead the agency over its most productive period in recent history.”
He then thanked the FCC staff and the “American people for their support during my time at the FCC. I look forward to the next adventure.”
But, of course, there was to be no exit without one more parting shot; an untruth so enormous that it almost obscures the depressing reality. “FCC Annual Broadband Report Shows Digital Divide Is Rapidly Closing,” reads the headline.
The Big Lie
The FCC is required to produce an annual report looking at the provision of fast internet access to Americans and tell Congress if sufficient progress is being made. If the regulator finds it isn’t, it has an array of significant powers that it can use against internet services providers to force them to do better.
And so, year after year, Pai’s FCC has pushed the fantasy that broadband is being deployed “on a reasonable & timely basis” despite all the evidence to the contrary. It has argued that the benchmark for broadband service should be 25Mbps down and 3Mbps (25/3) up rather than the 100/10 standard that others have suggested for more than five years.
The battle over getting Americans decent internet access is the purest sign of the hold that Big Cable has over the organization that is supposed to oversee them. Internet access for Americans is too limited, too slow, and too expensive for the simple reason that the cable industry has optimized itself for maximum profits and minimal competition.
Any change to that structure cuts into their bottom line, and so is fiercely resisted. But the end result has been appalling internet speeds and coverage when compared to the rest of the developed world. Never was it more important for America to have ready access to fast, well-priced internet access that this past year of the pandemic.
It should have been a wake-up call. This year’s broadband report from the FCC should be full of data and stories of how the current situation hurt the United States and how it is more imperative than ever to fix the problem. It should have argued for determined action. Instead, it was more of the same: everything’s fine. Everything’s fine.
Meet the new boss, maybe not like the old boss
But Pai is gone and the likelihood is that his fellow commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, will be given the top role by President Biden in the next week or so. As such, it is worth reviewing her statement [PDF] on the broadband report to see where we may be going for the next four years.
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“We are in the middle of a pandemic,” she wrote. “So much of modern life has migrated online. As a result, it has become painfully clear there are too many people in the United States who lack access to broadband. In fact, if this crisis has revealed anything, it is the hard truth that the digital divide is very real and very big.
“So it confounds logic that today the FCC decides to release a report that says that broadband is being deployed to all Americans in a reasonable and timely fashion. If you want evidence this is not right, it’s all around us. There are people sitting in parking lots using free Wi-Fi signals because they have no other way to get online.
“There are students who fall in the homework gap because the lack the high-speed service they need to participate in remote learning. There are mayors in towns across the country clamoring for better broadband so their communities have a fair shot at digital age success… we have not yet reached all Americans. We have real work to do before we can claim that 100 per cent of this country has access to broadband service. I dissent.” ®