Pai Tours The Country Promising Better Rural Broadband, But His Policies Routinely Undermine That Goal

By Karl Bode, Ap 4, 2019 | Original Techdirt article here.

From the "Watch-what-I-do,-not-what-I-say" dept. . . .

You may have noticed that FCC boss Ajit Pai likes to breathlessly and repeatedly proclaim that one of his top priorities while chair of the FCC is to "close the digital divide."

But, the lion’s share of Pai’s policies support one real agenda: protecting the nation’s biggest companies from disruption, competition, or accountability.

Pai, who clearly harbors post-FCC political aspirations, can usually be found touring the nation’s least-connected states declaring that he’s

working tirelessly to shore up broadband connectivity and competition nationwide. On trip after taxpayer funded trip, both Pai and his fellow commissioners tell audiences his policies are expanding high-speed internet access and closing the digital divide to create jobs and increase digital opportunity.

Several times a month, some small local paper can be found unquestioningly hyping Pai and his fellow commissioners’ "digital opportunity tour." Like this recent piece on FCC Commissioner Branden Carr’s trip to Alaska, or this piece on Pai’s recent visit to Vermont, where Pai once again repeated his (false) claim that gutting sector oversight (and net neutrality) will somehow magically result in better broadband in these historically neglected areas:

"A little rain did not stop Federal Communications Commission Chair Ajit Pai from climbing into a bucket loader and being hoisted to the top of a wireless hotspot in Springfield, Vermont, Wednesday…Pai says a free and open internet is in everyone’s best interests. He says if the little guys are successful, competition goes up and costs go down. ‘So our hope going forward is that consumers would continue to be protected and the FCC and the Federal Trade Commission, we are going to have much more infrastructure improvements than we have had in the past few years,’ Pai said"

Usually, the Commissioner is portrayed as folksy, relatable, and genuinely interested in making things better:

"I come from a very rural part of Kansas where there isn’t a lot of connectivity. Some of the people who move there do move there just to get away from it all, as it were. Our goal is to get you Wi-Fi whether you want it or not. No, I’m just kidding, our [goal] is to make sure every American who wants internet access is able to get it. So if you don’t want it, great, but, at least when I travel around, I’ve met many, many people who are desperate for it. We want to make sure that kind of connectivity that we often take for granted in some of the bigger cities extends to those off-the-beaten-path places."

And that would be great . . . if the Pai FCC’s policies actually reflected those statements. Perhaps Pai truly does believe that he’s single-handedly curing the digital divide by giving industry giants like Comcast and AT&T every policy win they’ve ever dreamed of. But in reality Pai’s policies continue to run in stark contrast to his stated goal of more competition, lower prices, and broader broadband availability.

For example last week the FCC quietly voted to cap spending on programs actually designed to bring broadband connectivity to the parts of the country that private ISPs don’t deem profitable enough:

"Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed a new spending cap on the FCC’s Universal Service programs that deploy broadband to poor people and to rural and other underserved areas.

Pai reportedly circulated the proposal to fellow commissioners on Tuesday, meaning it will be voted upon behind closed doors instead of in an open meeting. Pai has not released the proposal publicly, but it was described in a Politico report Wednesday, and an FCC official confirmed the proposal’s details to Ars."

And a relentless Pai target has been the FCC’s Lifeline program, an effort started by Reagan and expanded by Bush that long enjoyed bipartisan support until the post-truth era rolled into town. Lifeline doles out a measly $9.25 per month subsidy that low-income homes can use to help pay a tiny fraction of their wireless, phone, or broadband bills (enrolled participants have to chose one). The FCC under former FCC boss Tom Wheeler had voted to expand the service to cover broadband connections, something Pai (ever a champion to the poor) voted down. He’s been attacking the program ever since.

There are endless other examples of Pai policies doing the exact opposite of what he promises during his town-to-town PR tours, yet none of these are reflected in any of the local coverage of these taxpayer-funded junkets.

The repeal of net neutrality and FCC privacy rules, for example, opens the door to the nickel-and-diming of consumers that already pay some of the highest prices in the developed world for broadband. Pai’s attacks on efforts to improve cable box competition ensure your cable box remains both closed and expensive to rent. Pai’s FCC also recently gutted a program designed to make rural broadband more affordable in tribal areas, though the courts recently killed that effort after showcasing Pai’s arguments weren’t factually supportable.

Elsewhere, Pai’s FCC has literally tried to weaken the definition of "competition," in a bid to obfuscate broadband deployment and competition shortcomings at behest of industry. And his agency can often be found demonizing community broadband efforts, which are an organic, local response to the private sector’s obvious failure to uniformly deploy broadband across the country. This is all when Pai’s FCC isn’t busy protecting prison phone monopolies or gutting decades old media consolidation rules intended to protect diverse, local reporting.

The lion’s share of Pai’s policies support one real agenda: protecting the nation’s biggest companies from disruption, competition, or accountability.

It’s not really debatable. Yet thanks to the slow and steady erosion of quality local reporting, not a week goes by where Pai isn’t featured by some fluffy local PR piece that ignores all of this and portrays Pai as a "folksy" champion for a digital divide. Even though the lion’s share of the FCC boss’ policies are making many of these problems notably worse.