Whether it's rolling back already agreed upon merger conditions, killing net neutrality, or eliminating broadband privacy protections, giant ISP lobbyists are having a field day under the Trump administration, slowly but surely stripping away oversight of one of the least competitive -- and most anti-competitive -- sectors in American industry. We've noted repeatedly that as giant cable providers like Comcast nab an ever larger monopoly over next-gen broadband services, the end result of this myopic pursuit will be even higher rates -- and even worse customer service -- for everyone.
But there's a problem in this quest to create a new, golden era of telecom sector monopoly dysfunction: individual states.
In the wake of the attack on the FCC privacy rules, more than a dozen states have rushed to enact new privacy protections for consumers, requiring that ISPs are very clear about what data they're collecting and who they're selling it to. And in the wake of federal apathy to consumer complaints about some of the worst customer service in any industry, individual states have also started pushing back, as evidenced by New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman's lawsuit against Charter Communications for advertising speeds company execs knew they couldn't deliver.
Ironically, cable lobbyists (and the politicians, sock puppets, think tankers and policy wonks paid to love them) have quickly rushed to defend "states' rights!" when it comes to giant ISPs' ability to write protectionist state laws that hamper broadband competition. But now that several states are actually passing legislation that might help consumers, the broadband industry and current FCC have launched a concerted effort to keep states from meddling in their attempts to build utterly-unaccountable media, advertising, broadband and television conglomerates.
Case in point: the FCC is already making noise about their plans to somehow prevent states from passing consumer broadband privacy laws. And last week, cable industry lobbyists began petitioning the FCC in the hopes of making it much more difficult for states to investigate claims of substandard broadband service and speeds, allowing them to hide behind the "up to" marketing language most of us are familiar with:
"NCTA-The Internet & Television Association and USTelecom, lobby groups for the cable and telecom industries, last month petitioned the Federal Communications Commission for a declaratory ruling that would help ISPs defend themselves against state-level investigations. The FCC should declare that advertisements of speeds "up to" a certain level of megabits per second are consistent with federal law as long as ISPs meet their disclosure obligations under the net neutrality rules, the groups said. There should be a national standard enforced by the FCC instead of a state-by-state "patchwork of inconsistent requirements," they argue.
While there are valid concerns that individual state requirements could make life more complicated for large ISPs, ignored by the NCTA is the fact that their efforts to gut meaningful federal oversight of telecom providers is the primary reason that's happening in the first place. And a bipartisan filing by 34 state attorneys general (pdf) points out that this effort has nothing to do with wanting to avoid "inconsistent requirements," and everything to do with wanting to dodge accountability for poor service on both the state and federal level:
"[I]t appears that the petition is really seeking to alter disclosure obligations under state law, including state consumer protection laws’ prohibitions on false and misleading statements and material omissions in consumer-facing advertisements," they wrote. "Such a ruling would plainly exceed the scope of the Commission’s authority granted by Congress, and would be improper." There is also "no factual basis" to determine that ISPs' speed disclosures meet the FCC's "just and reasonable" standard, they argued. "The request is plainly seeking a factual finding, despite the complete lack of any factual record to support such a conclusion," they wrote."
It's worth reiterating: when states have come under fire for letting ISP lobbyists directly write horrible protectionist legislation that hamstrings local community rights and hinders broadband competition, cable lobbyists are quick to rush to the defense of state rights. When those states actually try to hold these same broadband providers accountable for substandard service courtesy of a lack of competition, it's suddenly all a bridge too far. Meanwhile, those that still believe that blindly deregulating the telecom market will somehow magically make Comcast behave, are in for a nasty surprise over the next decade.
Again, deregulation can help competitive markets thrive. But the telecom sector, as we've long illustrated, is neither competitive nor that simple. In fact, earlier efforts to blindly deregulate an uncompetitive, utterly-dysfunctional, taxpayer-subsidized broadband industry is the precise reason most of you are currently stuck on hold with Comcast in the first place. And the sooner we collectively realize that giving some of the least ethical companies in America carte blanche doesn't magically result in connectivity Utopia, the sooner the quest for cheaper, better, and more broadly-available broadband will be fulfilled.