Personal Tech

Sigh. Big Cable execs dominate FCC panel overseeing Big Cable's broadband upgrades

Deployment committee stacked with industry bods, says report

By Kieren McCarthy in San Francisco


In just the latest example of how far America's telecoms regulator is in the pockets of the cable giants, its panel scrutinizing US broadband rollouts has been heavily stacked with industry executives.

The Broadband Deployment Advisory Committee (BDAC) was announced by FCC chairman Ajit Pai in January, and formally launched [PDF] in April, where Pai said it would be charged with "getting to work on recommendations that will help break down barriers to broadband deployment."

An analysis of the committee's 30 members by The Center for Public Integrity, however, reveals that the cable industry dominates the committee, to the detriment of local city and state officials – even though the main impact of the group's recommendations will be on these public officials.

Of the 30 members, a majority – 16 – work for telecoms companies: AT&T, Comcast, and Sprint included. A further four work for Big Cable trade associations. Of the remaining 10, most are notable for their public support of Pai. Only three of the 30 are local or state officials.

What makes the selection process all the more questionable, however, is the fact that, according to the The Center for Public Integrity, no less than 64 city and state officials put their names forward for the committee, including a significant number who have first-hand experience of the very issues that the committee is expected to provide recommendations on.


One of them, Gary Carter, told the center that when he called the FCC to check on progress of the committee's selection and identified himself as an employee of the City of Santa Monica "the gentleman on the phone laughed hysterically."

He went on: "At first I didn't get the joke. When I saw the appointees for the municipal working group – only three out of 24 positions were from local government – I got the joke."

The FCC has not explained how it made its selection, nor has it identified which of its staff made the selection based on what criteria. The federal watchdog has also refused to explain its decision to give telecoms companies and their association a two-thirds majority on the committee nor why local and state officials have only been given three seats.

That majority means that any recommendations resulting from the committee will effectively emanate directly from the cable industry. Traditionally, the entire point of advisory committees is to get all sides to work on an issue and put forward recommendations that almost everyone can agree on. That, in theory, puts the federal regulator in the position of only introducing what has already been worked through, rather than be forced to act as an advocate for its own policies.

Often that system breaks down and a regulator is forced to decide whether to do nothing or take one position over another. But by stacking a committee at the very beginning with one predominant group, the FCC is giving up all pretense of neutrality.

The reason a balance between public officials and industry executives is crucial in this case is because of the work the committee will undertake.

High-speed web for America

Its main mission will be to recommend how to "accelerate the deployment of high-speed Internet access by reducing and/or removing regulatory barriers to infrastructure investment."

And the issues specifically highlighted in its charter are: a model code covering local franchising, zoning, permitting, and rights-of-ways regulations; reforms of pole attachment rules; and "unreasonable" regulatory barriers to broadband deployment.

In each case, any recommendations will directly impact local and state officials who have responsibility for implementing such measures. And it is not hard to see how rules that telecoms companies may see as "unreasonable" could be seen very differently by public officials whose primary duty is to citizens.

The key argument in this case will be over the expansion of 5G technology, which to work effectively, will require huge numbers of small cell towers to be added to buildings. To be effective, and cost effective, the reality is that most of these towers will need to be on local or state government owned property.

But, local and state government typically run permitting process for such installations, which both costs money and allows local residents to have some input: two things that companies that want to get their equipment up on buildings fast don't like.

There is, of course, a good argument to be made for streamlining approval processes and for standardizing such a process across cities and states – but without sufficient input from local officials, it is almost certain that an industry bias will lead to recommendations that will not sit well with the realities on the ground.

That may then put the FCC in the position of attempting to force changes past public officials, creating problems further down the line.

In short, it is bad policy making.

One of many

This is also just the latest example of an FCC that appears to be working hand-in-hand with Big Cable and the Republican Party in order to bypass others.

Most recently, the FCC announced a plan to redefine what "fast internet" actually means, mirroring a blog post from a cable trade association that used an outdated speed measure to claim that the broadband market was highly competitive.

In the ongoing fight over the FCC Pai's efforts to get rid of existing net neutrality rules, a recent letter from Democratic congressmen pointed out that the main argument put forward to getting rid of the rules is the cable industry's claims that it has cut back investment. Such claims may or may not be true but, regardless, the FCC's job is to develop policies that consider everyone, not just cable companies.

Then there is the ongoing saga over the FCC's public comment process, where the regulator claimed that a flood of public comments criticizing its actions was a cyberattack but has refused to provide any evidence of it. And where it continues to maintain an API for receiving mass comments even after that system was widely abused by people using others' identities to push a pro-Pai message.

A revised version of the anti-net neutrality proposal demonstrated a clear bias for cable company comments. And a talking points memo sent out by the Republican Party's headquarters to congressmen, in support of the FCC's plan, was found to have been written by the cable industry. ®

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