Net Neutrality’s Dead: Time To Focus On The Real Issue: Telecom Monopolization

from the this-is-why-we-can’t-have-nice-things dept

Earlier this month a homophobic smear campaign seeded in the press by the likes of AT&T, Comcast, and News Corporation successfully killed the FCC nomination of popular reformer Gigi Sohn. The goal: to keep the FCC in perpetual partisan gridlock, preventing the agency from making any decisions deemed even remotely controversial by the media and telecom giants the agency is supposed to regulate.

With Sohn’s nomination killed, it could take the better part of the rest of the year to appoint and confirm a third Democratic FCC Commissioner, assuming one gets appointed at all. If and when that candidate does get seated, they’ll have very little time before the next presidential election to implement any major policies. As such, the FCC will very likely focus on politically safer fare.

That means meaningful reforms that are popular among consumers, like the restoration of net neutrality, or the restoration of media consolidation limits, are all but doomed (for now):

Now, the White House has been forced to start over, prolonging a vacancy that continues to obstruct the administration’s broadband agenda. The White House hasn’t announced a new nominee or when they’re hoping to confirm someone, but it’s unlikely that Biden would pick someone as critical of cable companies as Sohn. Republicans and “dark money” groups have already proved that they’re willing to spend millions to block progressive nominees. With so little time left in Biden’s first term, stakeholders may even try to thwart a more moderate nominee, especially if there’s an opportunity to continue the stalemate past the 2024 election.

Even if Sohn was appointed, I wasn’t entirely sure that FCC boss Jessica Rosenworcel actually had the backbone to revisit the net neutrality fight. If you’re a career politician with an eye on a lucrative post-FCC career, there’s not a lot of political upside in upsetting top telecom donors. Former FCC boss Tom Wheeler embraced net neutrality only in part because he was retiring and had nobody left to impress.

With the FCC effectively lobotomized, states and municipalities have effectively given up on coherent federal leadership on issues like telecom policy. Instead they’re redirecting the conversation back to where it probably should have been all along: the perils of unchecked telecom monopolization, and the need to build cohesive, locally-owned and operated alternatives to monopoly power.

As we’ve long noted, net neutrality rules were just imperfect, stopgap protections to try and protect consumers (and competitors) from monopoly power. If you bring real competition to bear on entrenched monopolies like AT&T and Comcast, net neutrality rules become less important as unethical ISPs would be punished by customer defections to competitors.

(That’s not to say federal consumer protection isn’t important, but it’s hard to watch the agency over the last twenty years and not come away with the sense that the activist battle against entrenched telecom giants has been a profound failure, and is in dramatic need of new, creative tactics.)

The problem: with state and federal policymakers under the sway of entrenched monopolies, it’s very difficult to implement cohesive federal policies that bring competition to bear against monopolies.

Enter a huge boom in community-owned and operated broadband networks, whether they’re cooperatives, municipalities, city-owned utilities, or public/private partnerships. These projects are an organic, grass roots response to federal regulatory capture and monopolization, which is why monopolies have tried so hard to outlaw them with shitty, protectionist state laws.

Again, net neutrality was important. Title II classification of ISPs (which provides the FCC the authority to hold Comcast accountable) remains important. Having competent federal regulators step in to address widespread market harms in the wake of market failure is important.

But in the absence of that, and given the public’s weariness in retreading the complicated, wonky world of net neutrality policy, it’s probably time to shift the policy focus back to the roots of the real problem: mindless consolidation and unchecked telecom monopoly power.

83 million Americans live under a broadband monopoly. It’s clear the federal government is too corrupt and captured to do much about it. As a rightward-lurching court system seeks to lobotomize the federal regulatory state entirely, the onus will increasingly be thrown at the feet of state and local leaders to build meaningful alternatives to monopoly power on a block by block basis.

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