Meet the new heavily-lobbied boss. Same as the old heavily-lobbied boss?
As the government continues to work on crafting our first national broadband plan, there's been a lot of talk about how that process is consumer-centric, transparent, and data-driven. The FCC has spent the last few months talking about how they might actually start using real data to make policy decisions
(astounding). Uncle Sam has unveiled a series of workshops
to help consumers feel involved in the process (amazing). The FCC even says they'll be using more scientists and engineers and fewer lawyers and policy wonks (incredible).
But beneath all of this recent bubbly enthusiasm, there's some telltale signs that corporate lobbyists are still running the show, transparency isn't quite the priority the government claims, and consumers are little more than an afterthought. Yes, it's early, and these are all things that may not be show stoppers. But they're all things that need to be watched lest the process devolve into farce. A transparent, well-documented farce, but a farce all the same. Five things that need watching over the next 188 days if consumers want this to work:
Uncle Sam Is Already Wimping Out On Data Collection
If you've been paying attention the last ten years, you know that ISPs have fought tooth and nail in court
to avoid having to release any
raw data into the public sphere, be it coverage gaps, network congestion, or real world throughput.
ISPs like to argue they fight the release of such data because it would tip off competitors, but in reality incumbent ISPs know precisely
where a competitor offers service and at what speeds, because they spend millions of dollars on intelligence gathering. Think Verizon doesn't know exactly where competitors offer service before it invests $24 billion to deploy fiber to the home service?
The real reason ISPs don't want that data exposed is because it would show limited competition and significant coverage gaps, resulting in new laws aimed at fixing things, and in turn lowering revenues. Instead, the government has willfully used flawed data
that suggests everything is rosy. The illusion of a competitive, rosy broadband market has allowed government (and the lobbyists who love them) to justify the elimination of price controls and other consumer protection laws.
The result of years of government pandering to industry lobbyists, sucking down junk science lattes and ignoring consumer welfare? U.S. broadband customers are paying more money for less bandwidth
with more restrictions than dozens of developed countries. Step one to turning things around? Making sure that the government has accurate, independently verifiable data. While the government has clearly admitted this problem and been paying lip service to it, their actions are busy saying something completely different.
After being lobbied by telecom carriers, the Commerce Department this week announced they'd be drastically reducing
the volume of data ISPs have to provide Uncle Sam. ISPs will no longer have to provide government with data on connection speed, actual price paid per user, technology type or address-specific data. Instead, carriers now only have to hand over vague, market-area data that's not particularly useful in forming policy.
It's August. What other metrics will be watered down by industry lobbyists by the time the plan runs the lobbyist gauntlet and gets finalized in February? Why not just force ISPs to sign a certified certificate of their own awesomeness, and make hard data completely optional.
Connected Nation Has Cornered The Market On Broadband Mapping
For the last few years, a consumer advocate by the name of Art Brodsky has been quietly warning the public
about a group by the name of Connected Nation. The group, according to Brodsky, is little more than a dog and pony show designed by telecom lobbyists to project an artificially inflated view of broadband competition, while lobbying lawmakers at the behest of major carriers. The Wall Street Journal
raised many of the same questions last June.
Connected Nation CEO Brian Mefford insists to us the agency is a truly independent operation, even if the group's board of directors
reads like a who's who of lobbying for the nation's largest carriers. The group, which could potentially gobble up the lion's share of the $300 million in taxpayer money being assigned to broadband mapping, conveniently puts more transparent and less incumbent-tied mapping operations out of business in each state they function.
Under Connected Nation's model, taxpayer dollars go to a broadband mapping system that cannot be truly independently verified, with data technically "owned" by major carriers, not the taxpayer. While Mefford tells us the organization has made great strides on this front, there's a good reason to remain skeptical. Their existing "successes" so far consist of things like press releases
claiming they've miraculously brought broadband to nearly 100% of Kentucky. Many of these successes don't hold up under close scrutiny.
Phone and cable lobbying and PR efforts go so far as to create completely artificial consumer advocacy groups
to argue against your best interest as a consumer, so such an operation wouldn't be the first. But if Connected Nation is only half the sham Brodsky seems to think it is, it very well may be the largest, most nefariously ingenious and well funded lobbying operation launched by carriers in the last decade.
We're scheduled to sit down and talk with Mefford about the group's methodology in the near future.
New FCC Boss Talks A Lot, But Says Nothing
New FCC boss Julius Genachowski has so far been allowed to skirt confrontation by riding the middle ground, his public discussions on broadband (including at his confirmation) not really choosing sides on a slew of controversial topics ranging from government-subsidized broadband to the need for network neutrality legislation. Other than vague support for select issues, Genachowski's true feelings on the issues remain murky at best.
The past few months has seen him do a flood of interviews with outlets like The Wall Street Journal
, Washington Post
. If you read them carefully, you'll notice he never actually answers a single question with a concrete answer. He's particularly cagey on the subject of whether the agency intends to pass new consumer protection laws.
There could be several reasons for this, including the fact that his agency wasn't fully stocked, or he's not interested in making enemies at carriers early in the process. But the complete
absence of substance in these interviews could equally suggest he has no intention of changing the status quo. Coming from an entrepreneurial background where all government regulation is seen as synonymous with puppy torture, it's very possible that Genachowski has little intention of shaking things up.
But bold choices and a good shake is precisely what's needed at an agency that's shifted away from technology and become a play thing for telecom industry policy wonks, PR magicians
, and lobbyists. These companies all but directly control the United States Congress, and the deep competitive shortcomings in this sector aren't going to be fixed by ambiguity. It's time for Genachowski to start taking clear positions, and any broadband policy worth its salt isn't going to make many friends among the folks at AT&T, Verizon and Comcast.
NTIA Judges For Grant Approval Are Anonymous
The fact that the NTIA is doling out $4.7 billion in broadband grants and loans has certainly been well discussed. Less discussed perhaps is that the people the NTIA has brought in to Judge grant applications are being kept anonymous
. That means the public has absolutely no recourse as to whether grants are really being doled out fairly or by individuals or parties without a vested interest in the fund distribution.
The NTIA's call for reviewers
(pdf) insists reviewers will "come from diverse backgrounds," but there's no way for anyone to confirm this. It's a strange choice for a "transparent" process, and we've got calls in to the NTIA as we try to understand what's wrong with actually knowing the identities of the reviewers.
The agency has been doling out such grants for a while, with a mixed track record of successes and failures in terms of getting broadband investment funds where they're actually needed. If you recall, it wasn't long ago that the agency proudly proclaimed
we'd reached our goal of 100% universal broadband availability, again using bogus data the government knew was flawed (see our first two concerns).
As Usual, Consumers Are Getting Largely Overlooked
The FCC continues to hold "workshops
" to discuss the direction and scope of the national broadband plan. They're also recording presentations by all of the FCC's "constituents," and offering consumers instantaneous access to all of the documents being presented at the workshop at the Broadband.gov website
. All of this is absolutely great. What's not so great?
There are 51 panelists attending the latest 8 workshops. Out of those 51, there are just five
people not directly associated with a company: Dave Burstein, Craig Moffett, George Ford, Victor Frost and Henning Schulzrinne. Moffett is a stock jock whose positions (such as upgrades are unnecessary
and consumers should be paying more money
) are clearly not going to serve anyone but investors. Ford works at the Phoenix Center, an AT&T-funded "think tank," whose job is to parrot AT&T policy positions.
Of the remaining three, only Burstein, a long-time telecom beat reporter, will likely ask any hard questions -- and then again his job is to get scoops, not to represent the public interest. Zero
of the originally scheduled attendees acted as public interest witnesses. After complaints by consumer groups, Dr. Mark Cooper from the Consumer Federation Of America was added at the last second, but the fact that this was an afterthought raises questions about how "transparent and inclusive" this process really is.
"To start with, this is the most open, transparent and participatory process the FCC has ever done," the FCC's Mark Wigfield tells us, though that's not saying much. "Second, the scope of the process, including the workshops, is so large and the timetable so short that we are constantly going to be revising and improving how we gather and analyze information," he says. "We are committed to compiling a full record from across the spectrum of providers, public, private and non-profit alike," says Wigfield.
Through all of this, there's several worrying trends that should be very familiar to those who've watched DC fail at telecom policy the last decade. One is that powerful industry lobbyists are doing everything in their power to not only control, but manipulate the data the government will be using. Another is that consumers remain involved up to a point, but by and large the real "discussion" is occurring between various industry lobbyists, policy wonks and think tank employees, with consumers and consumer advocates watching the process from the cheap seats.
Again it's early, and as the Broadband.gov website notes -- there's 188 days left until the plan is unveiled
. While government might succeed, they've got to spend the next 188 days running through a gauntlet of incumbent ISP lobbyists, who have every intention of turning the national broadband plan into their own personal plaything. Consumers are outspent, outgunned, and under-represented in this discussion, and are going to have to pay close attention if they want the nation's new broadband plan to work.
Too much criticism of agencies like the FCC at this juncture might be counter-productive, and feed into the lobbyist meme that all government efforts inevitably result in failure. Of course, lobbyists don't mention that many such efforts fail because by the time they finally get crafted, what began as good intention was disfigured by corporate influence. We've got 188 days to see if our national broadband plan will be one such effort.