Fast, affordable Internet access for all.
Net Neutrality and the Regulatory Theater of the FCC - Episode 571 of the Community Broadband Bits Podcast
This week on the podcast, Christopher is joined by Karl Bode, a returning guest who has long covered tech and the telecommunications industry. After a short conversation about the continued absence of monopoly abuse in policy conversations about broadband access and affordability today, Karl and Christopher tackle the proposed return to net neutrality announced by Chairwoman Rosenworcel last week.
They talk about how we got here in the first place, including the landmark decision by the Commission in 2015 to largely abdicate responsibility for Internet-related regulatory activities and the states that stepped in to fill the void. They end the show by considering for a bit what it might be like to have an expert federal agency whose activities governed by a strong regulatory framework and the teeth to enforce its mandate to extend fast, affordable, reliable Internet access for all.
This show is 38 minutes long and can be played on this page or via iTunes or the tool of your choice using this feed. You can listen to the interview on this page or visit the Community Broadband Bits page.
We want your feedback and suggestions for the show-please e-mail us or leave a comment below.
Subscribe to the Building Local Power podcast, also from the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, on iTunes or Stitcher to catch more great conversations about local communities, the concentration of corporate power, and how everyday people are taking control.
Thanks to Arne Huseby for the music. The song is Warm Duck Shuffle and is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution (3.0) license.
Karl Bode (00:07):
Most of these concerns began when AT&T C E O, Ed Whitaker informed everybody that Google wasn't going to be allowed to ride his pipes for free.
Christopher Mitchell (00:16):
Welcome to another episode of the Community Broadband Bits podcast. I'm Christopher Mitchell at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance in St. Paul, Minnesota, and it's been a little while. I'm excited to be here with Carl Bode. Carl, welcome.
Karl Bode (00:34):
Thank you for having me. I appreciate it.
Christopher Mitchell (00:36):
It's been a while since you were here, and now you're someone who I feel like we have a little bit of a conflict in that you're someone who does a lot of writing for us.
Karl Bode (00:45):
Yeah, it's true. There's plenty to write about. There's endless news.
Christopher Mitchell (00:50):
We've been excited that you've joined as a freelancer. I've been working together. There's probably been a year, almost a year now, right? Since you wrote your first story.
Karl Bode (00:57):
Yep. A little more than a year. Yeah, it's been great.
Christopher Mitchell (01:00):
But I haven't had you on the show and we're fixing that now. You and I were exchanging a couple of emails about the net neutrality return to prominence. Curious. I'm deeply curious to see if this takes over all of the telecom news sectors or if BEAD and net neutrality be at war with each other for clickbait articles or what.
Karl Bode (01:23):
Yeah, we'll see. I sense a certain fatigue in both the press and the public and in policymakers with not just net neutrality, but telecom issues in general. The last two years was filled with just talk about antitrust reform for tech, big tech. Everything was about big tech content moderation. That's pretty much got the exclusive focus, and so it's interesting to see net neutrality roar back and to see if people actually are still as interested as they were when they were repealed it in 2017.
Christopher Mitchell (01:53):
And so we're going to talk about that. We might talk about a couple of other topics, but Well, I'm sure we will touch on a few other things that are related, but we wanted to talk about that. I wanted to just make sure people know who you are. So Karl, you got into this fairly recently, 19 99, 19 98,
Karl Bode (02:14):
Yeah, 98. Yeah. I helped build DSL Reports with Justin Beach, which is a website.
Christopher Mitchell (02:21):
Why did even report on D S L? It's
Karl Bode (02:22):
Obsolete. I know. I know. I S D N. I wrote a lot of articles about bonded I S D N at the time. I remember we basically noticed there wasn't a real repository for people to share their feelings about broadband reviews. So we made basically a giant community that mostly griped about high latency and high costs and day in, day out, I would write about what companies were doing, and you learned a lot about how government works during that whole process,
Christopher Mitchell (02:46):
And you really built a community. Every article had tens of comments. I feel like quickly,
Karl Bode (02:53):
Yeah, that community, it's still going on. It's pretty much that website's kind of been put in autopilot, but it's still got a pretty strong community over there. People that just want to figure out how things works and figure out how to fix their problems. About seven, eight years ago, I started freelancing more, and you can find my work all over the place at PC Dirt and now at the Institute and Vice and other places. So it's been a long haul tracking this industry,
Christopher Mitchell (03:15):
And I feel like you've always been a voice, which is one of, am I crazy here? I read all these stories about this, but no one's talking about monopoly. That's one of the things that the recurring theme for you more lately is to be like, how can we have hundreds of stories about a given tech thing or about the BEAD awards? And no one mentions monopoly. So this is before we get into net neutrality, I want to talk about this hobby horse of yours. So nobody acknowledges that monopoly and broadband is a problem.
Karl Bode (03:49):
No, you could. You could go pick any week, any day of the week, go look at the top 10 stories about broadband and try to find one that clearly points out that we have a problem with consolidated monopoly power in the telecom space that causes competitive shortcomings. And you won't find it. It's just kind of floated over. The idea that we have monopolies that are kind of coddled by government corruption is just not talked about. It's as if it doesn't exist. You can read 30 stories about Comcast and nobody will mention that they don't have enough competition, and that's why their prices are high. So we talk about telecom, we talk about broadband policy, but there's this weird, I think in the political landscape, they're so afraid of upsetting these companies because they're such big campaign contributors, but they're also pretty much bone grafted to our intelligence gathering and first responder network.
So they're effectively a pretty closely tethered extension of government. So I think you have a lot of these political leaders that want to have their cake and eat it too. They want to talk politely and about the digital divide and how they want to fix that, but none of them really want to get to the real meat of the issue, which is that we've allowed consolidated monopoly power to flourish, leaving most communities with the choice of just one or two providers that don't try very hard to compete, don't compete on price, have abysmal customer service that statistically ranks among the worst of any industry in the country, which is a pretty impressive feat.
Christopher Mitchell (05:08):
Yeah, we have Wells Fargo out there.
Karl Bode (05:10):
Yeah, it's glossed over. Just became surreal to me as I was writing about these policy issues that so much of the coverage wasn't exactly being honest. I think about where we find ourselves.
Christopher Mitchell (05:20):
Well, I was going to ask you why that's a problem to not acknowledge it, although I think you just covered it at the end of your comments, but I did want to note that I think it is the money, but I think it's also that people should appreciate that almost every district has a place where Comcast or Charter has service in the district, and the big telephone companies have powerful, a large union, and there's not a lot of private sector unions left, but the Communication Workers of America are one, and they certainly don't see eye to eye with those big companies on everything. But there's a fair amount of issues that they do agree with on, and so that gives even more power in the State House and at the federal level to those few big cable and telephone monopolies.
Karl Bode (06:06):
And let's be honest, in a lot of these states, the telecom monopolies are literally writing the law. It's filtered through proxy groups that do this for a living and present it to lawmakers. But a good majority of the time they're writing telecom law. And then we turn around and act surprised why prices are so high or these companies didn't really feel like they had to extend broadband and extra a thousand feet to some of the other parts of the neglected communities. So writing about this year after year after year, and noticing this kind of omission and context of coverage frustrated me. So I try to be honest about what I see.
Christopher Mitchell (06:40):
We're doing a little bit of a scavenger hunt, trying to figure out if any of the state plans, any of the volumes, any of the five-year plans mentioned monopoly as a problem. So far, we've not identified one oh low, as we talked about on a previous show. South Carolina does. Residents of the state who do identify that as a problem. But no state is saying one of our problems is that we have this significant lack of market competition,
Karl Bode (07:06):
And I think there's a lot of leverage there and messaging to the public because their frustration with these companies is very severe, and I still don't see politicians capitalizing it and speaking to the public in a way that really resonates.
Christopher Mitchell (07:17):
That's right. So let's move on to net neutrality. Net neutrality is back in the news. Federal communications chairperson, chairwoman chair, Jessica Rosenworcel has announced new rules. I think some of us, candidly were cynically skeptical before we saw the announcement that they would go as far as they have, as you and I are recording this, we've not seen the rules, but certainly Jessica Rosenworcel described them in a way that sounds like they are very similar to the rules of 2015, I believe it was. And also note that I felt like Blair Levin wrote up a piece about them, and I don't know that he saw them, although I suspect that he would know if there was a major difference and seemed to think that they would be broadly similar to the rules that already went through. So for people who aren't familiar with this, we're going to talk briefly about where we are right now, and then we'll talk about how we got here. So right now, it seems like we're seeing pretty strong rules being developed. I think by the time people hear this, the rules will be publicly available that will be voted on at the end of October, and then I think the Internet ends at that point, right?
Karl Bode (08:31):
Yeah. Everything stops. You can't use the Internet. All things break.
Christopher Mitchell (08:35):
There'll be no more investment in it. That's something that I've learned.
Karl Bode (08:37):
Yeah. Yeah. I'm sorry. Yeah. All investment in broadband stops because we implemented some fairly basic consumer protections. I'm sorry to inform everyone,
Christopher Mitchell (08:44):
Which no one was ever planning on violating anyway,
Karl Bode (08:47):
Right? Exactly right. Exactly right. Yeah. I was impressed that they actually brought in the full Title II reclassification. I think there was some concern that they would try to do kind of a pseudo net neutrality that sounded good, covered all the bases, but didn't actually restore the FCC'sfull authority over broadband giants. I thought it was interesting this time. They took a little bit of a wrinkle in the language, and they made it clear that restoring the FCC's full authority here would help it do things like implement cybersecurity standards. So they integrated a lot more language about how the F C C needs some of this authority, not just to protect net neutrality and prevent monopolies from abusing their market power, but also because it will help them shore up cybersecurity, which if you haven't known it, there's just an endless flood of hacks and breaches and wireless data collection scandals that the F C C hasn't been able to really do much about because they had that authority stripped away.
Christopher Mitchell (09:41):
And we'll talk about Title one versus title two to explain that in a few minutes, but I think it is important to note that I'm not a lawyer. Very important to note that. But what I was going to say is that the F C C has been doing a lot to try to extend its authority to subsidize telecommunication service to broadband under the end of the Obama administration. The rules that were put into place by Chairman Wheeler at that time made it clear that the F C C had the authority to subsidize broadband services for low-income families and things like that when the Trump administration and chair pie got rid of those rules, I feel like it was one of those things where it wasn't totally clear that the F C C still had the authority to subsidize broadband at that point, and they found a workaround, but it's not the best. And so this action will, for instance, make it clear that the F C C is able to subsidize straight broadband networks, which is something that I think we want it to have the ability to do to fill in the gaps that are inevitable after BEAD is done.
Karl Bode (10:45):
Yeah, that's important. I think it's important to note that the net neutrality debate really kind of began almost two decades ago. I've been covering this story for two decades for a variety
Christopher Mitchell (10:54):
Of, I think Digital River was like 2003.
Karl Bode (10:58):
It's amazing. It's amazing. We're still fighting. And it's also important to note that this began under the Bush presidency. So this wasn't some partisan, as it's framed today as some radical socialist takeover of the Internet or whatever. This began as an idea. And the Bush administration both terms dealt with this issue because they realized these monopolies needed some kind of guidelines so that they're not constantly abusing their control over the access points to the Internet to disadvantage competitors or harm consumers. This was originally a bipartisan concept.
Christopher Mitchell (11:29):
And so the funny thing is, I feel like we didn't even define what net neutrality is, so we can do that right now as we talk about a little bit of the history. But the idea is that the companies that own Internet access delivery networks, the fiber optics, the wireless, depending the cable, the copper, they have a lot of power to shape what people do. Whether that is by outright blocking sites, which seems like it would be pretty rare, although has happened on occasion or prioritizing some sites, which means deprioritizing other sites to send nudges, where, just to give a dumb example, that wouldn't happen. But if it was easier to go to the Washington Post and that page loaded quickly all the time versus Fox News or New York Times, people are going to be going to the website that they know will load quickly to get those breaking news and things like that. So those companies that own the pipes have a lot of power to shape the experience and therefore nudge the, or bludgeon both the users of the networks in certain directions.
Karl Bode (12:36):
And to go back in history to 2005, most of these concerns began when at and T C E O Ed Whitaker informed everybody that Google wasn't going to be allowed to ride his pipes for free. That was his argument. He wanted to double dip. He basically was informing everyone that he wanted to charge content companies extra money in addition to the bandwidth costs that consumers and companies pay to reach his consumers. So that became a conversation. There's been numerous instances where ISPs have floated this idea of charging you more if you want to watch something in four K versus HD charging you more if you wanted to reach one website quicker than another. So there was, despite some rhetoric about how this is a solution in search of a problem, there was very clear intention on the part of the broadband monopolies that they were going to try and further abuse their market power.
Christopher Mitchell (13:20):
Well, and I would go back even further to the early 18 hundreds before the Telegraph when one of the things I found interesting in the history of Coal Book by Barbara Freeze, she talks about how Pennsylvania, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania actually made it illegal for anyone that owned a canal, in this case, the Schull Canal, to own interests in logging or mineral extraction, coal companies recognizing that the owner of the canal could charge exorbitant fees to rivals in the marketplace and then create a coal monopoly or a logging monopoly out of ownership of the only way to get those resources out of the region. And you could go back, I'm sure, to Roman times where they recognized the problem of infrastructure being monopolized by someone who they can use it elsewhere. Certainly, we saw it in the railroad. So this is not a theoretical thing. This is a, I would say millennia of human history leading us to recognize this is a common problem that has to be dealt with through government.
Karl Bode (14:24):
And in the modern broadband era, ISPs, there was an IS s p that blocked a competing voiceover Internet provider because they didn't want it competing with its own service. Verizon on its wireless networks will charge you more money to watch something in four K versus hd. There's been a lot of little moments over the years where they've made it very clear what their intent is. So when they say that, oh, this is a regulatory solution in search of a problem, it's just not true. I mean, you can see their tactics over the years. It's pretty well documented. It's not at all subtle what their interests were.
Christopher Mitchell (14:53):
There's a lot of years where I think public interest groups, and I don't know that I can name them all, but there's several that I think were fighting hard now. Public knowledge. Harold Feld had been in the media access project, and a lot of other folks from there, free Press Fight for the Future, very involved. More recently, Cheryl Leanza with a number of different groups over the years, I think, I don't know, suddenly all Cheryl's background, but there's a number of different people who have been working to make sure that we had proper oversight and regulation to curb monopoly potential abuses. That leads at some point, I don't know if maybe you know the year, but the F C C developed some weak rules, basically, and maybe it's helpful here to talk about title one or Title two. Do you want to take that first?
Karl Bode (15:39):
I will note that in 2010, they did introduce net neutrality rules, but they were weirdly broad and had all kinds of loopholes. They didn't apply to wireless networks at all, which were the exploding at the time, which didn't make any sense. So the early efforts of this were not very well considered, and the courts let them know that they weren't very well considered. But then in 2015, I think the wheeler F C C finally implemented some meaningful rules.
Christopher Mitchell (16:06):
So the wheeler, F C C is where really in the Obama years where he really fought over title one or Title two in part because one of the entertaining things that I think was that, as you noted, the F C C implemented some weak rules under Chairman Janowski not going to spend any time talking about his disastrous rain. But the rules were pretty limp, as you note in Verizon charged them in court and then won. And so the F C C had to develop better rules, and I think F C C was kind of scratching their head, why did we just do that? Yeah, exactly. Right. I think Comcast did the same thing then too, didn't they?
Karl Bode (16:41):
Yeah, they did. F C C kind of surprised everybody because at the time, Tom Wheeler was a former cable and wireless lobbyist that people didn't really know if he was going to pursue this with any sort of vigor. And so when he came out with full rules that basically redefined the regulatory landscape, it was actually pretty surprising to a lot of people.
Christopher Mitchell (16:59):
And that was, I think, something that resulted from the full court press of the public interest community. It was something that he did not want to do, was my understanding, but felt that he had to do, and this gets into this title one or title two issue where the Federal Communications Commission is an executive agency. It gets its power from Congress. And so if the F C C wants to make a rule about something, it has to cite the authority of how it can do it from Congress. Congress told the F C C, it could regulate different buckets of things in different ways. And so the F C C regulates cable in a different way from certain wireless transmissions in a different way from what we call Title two, which is a bucket, the Title two bucket, which was telephone and telecommunications services. And then there was this bucket of Title one, and Title one was Information services.
And it was very lightly regulated because the idea was that this was not super important. And so the F C C considered broadband Internet access or Internet access more broadly, I suppose, to be a, I think it's broadband Internet access lawyers, if you really want to get the big, big details, listen to the lawyers. This is a quick recap for help. But anyway, broadband Internet access was considered Title one, which means the F C C did not have the authority to regulate it in certain ways. For instance, telling them that they had to not discriminate or not block sites. And so the F C C kept trying to come up with rules under its title one authority, and the courts kept saying, you don't have authority if this is a Title one service to implement those rules. And finally, in 2015, chairman Wheeler said, all right, broadband is a Title two service. We've recognized this and we have evidence for that, and here are the rules that we were going to use. And then that did, I believe, survive challenge from court challenge.
Karl Bode (18:50):
Yeah. The courts have repeatedly at this point said that they were well within their authority to create those rules. I mean, the Trump F C C was well within its authority to remove them, although the way they removed them, I could go on at great length about as being a little bit underhanded, including the fact that they at one point used dead and fake people. The broadband industry paid PR groups to use dead and fake people to stuff, the F C C comment box with artificial support for the repeal of the
Christopher Mitchell (19:18):
Rules. Did they use your name for one of them?
Karl Bode (19:20):
They did. Mine was one of 'em. Yep. Someone wrote in as me saying that I really appreciated them making it easier for telecom monopolies to do whatever they wanted that was nice and charming. And the F C C, basically the Ajit PI F C C at that time basically turned a blind eye to those practices. I could go on a great length about the sleazy tactics that were used to the rules, which I would note have great bipartisan support in polls across the American public.
Christopher Mitchell (19:46):
The rules do not the sleazy tactics. Yes. Right.
Karl Bode (19:50):
I'm sure some people like it, but not me.
Christopher Mitchell (19:52):
And I would say one of the things that I heard from a number of municipal network operators was a concern about Title ii because under Title ii, the Federal Communications Commission has the authority to go much further to pass rules that would require unbundling, where network owners would have to share their networks, or the F C C could actually regulate the rates that are charged. And those freaked out the big companies, the middle-sized companies and the small companies. But the F C C under Chairman Wheeler said, we will forebear from using those sorts of things. And that was a way to, I think, give the markets some confidence that the F C C was not going to engage in something that some people would consider overreaching and have major market implications if they were to start doing rate regulation. And so there was, I think, an overblown interest from some scaremongers to say, well, the F C C could always forbear from it.
My understanding was that that is something that basically, there's not even a sense of how the F C C would go about doing that. There probably is a path, but it would not happen. I think there are people that I hold in high esteem who think the F C C should engage in unbundling and rate regulation requirements, but I am not in that camp myself. I think that's just a way to make a bunch of telecom lawyers in DC really rich and spend years of us writing stupid headlines about how nothing's changed. But the rules are being appealed once again,
Karl Bode (21:20):
And these new rules forebear a lot as well. But when I hear a lot of the people that talked about how the F C C at any point could become radical and do all kinds of radical stuff, I don't feel like those people have watched the F C C over the last 30 years. This is a fairly feckless agency. Most of the stuff it does do is a little bit regulatory theater, like the broadband labels, for example, that they're proposing to that show how much you're going to pay for a connection, all the restrictions on the line, instead of fixing the underlying problem that results in high prices and doing policies that drive competition to market, they often tend to do these more superficial approaches. We'll tell you, we're going to demand that broadband providers are more transparent about how they're ripping you off, but we're not going to actually do anything about how they're ripping you off. So that's mostly what the F C C does. I mean, they do a lot of other intelligent and important engineering work that's very complicated and essential to how everything works. So I want to make sure that that side is understood. But this idea that the F C C will just radically go off the wheels and start implementing super pro-consumer policies is pretty farcical if you understand the agency's history.
Christopher Mitchell (22:23):
Yeah, I think so. With that being said, I think as recently as a month ago, I expected this F C C once Commissioner Anna Gomez was seated, I expected them to basically say, well, there's not enough time to do this, so I'm glad to see this. I don't think it really changes a lot thanks to California and some other places where these rules have been codified at the state level as well. So we haven't seen any of the really bad behavior. I think there's been some edge conditions that we wouldn't like to see. I think on the whole, we're better off with these net neutrality rules, but I also, I'm always a little bit frustrated and we have to spend a lot of effort to win a battle that in the end just preserves where we are.
Karl Bode (23:10):
Christopher Mitchell (23:10):
Mostly freaking open Internet,
Karl Bode (23:12):
20 years of clawing, just to get back to what should be basically the standard concept. I see a lot of people argue that because the net neutrality was repealed and the Internet didn't immediately explode in a rainbow, that means that net neutrality didn't matter. But what happened is after the repeal states, including the entire West Coast passed their own state level net neutrality laws, so big ISPs didn't want to implement some weird anti-competitive concept across their footprints because they'd run afoul of the attorneys general across the entire West coast, which they're not going to do. So the reason that they've been on their best behavior isn't because the rules didn't matter. It's because states stepped up and filled the gap that the federal government put in place with their apathy about consumer protection. So I think that's always important to note because like clockwork, every three months I see somebody say, well, net neutrality rules must auto mattered. I could still use the Internet, and that's just doesn't make any sense. Yeah.
Christopher Mitchell (24:05):
I have the quote somewhere of Chairman API saying that once he restored Internet freedom, which is what he termed his effort of removing those rules, the Internet would be less expensive. Now, of course, US Telecom and other trade groups have issued paper after paper explaining how even though Internet access has increased by 30 or 40%, it's actually cheaper if you squint your eyes in the right way.
Karl Bode (24:29):
Yeah, right, right. If you study it just a certain way, bits per second, at certain times of day, you might notice that there's cost savings. But otherwise, otherwise, no.
Christopher Mitchell (24:38):
One of the things we've already seen it literally, I think it was the same day that we got a sense of what the rules are. There was already a report written by former Obama lawyers saying that this is actually now a major question, which means that it's a way of basically saying the Supreme Court should throw this rule out and force the FCC to have no authority over that. It should wait until Congress acts on it. And I just want to throw out there that we will continue to see a lot of Democrats taking big paydays from big telecom like Heidi Heidkamp did to try and tank Gigi Stone's nomination. Heidi Heidkamp, a very centrist senator from North Dakota, who I thought did a good job in a variety of ways, but then went out and just lied vociferously about Gigi Stone's record. And we'll see the same thing with the number of Democrats who will take big paydays to say that net neutrality is horrible and will be the end of something.
Karl Bode (25:38):
Yeah, exactly right. Joe Manchin too. Don't forget about him. He was central in dismantling Gigi's nomination, as was Mark Kelly and Masto, I forget which state she's from. Arizona. Yeah,
Christopher Mitchell (25:49):
Karl Bode (25:50):
Nevada, yeah. So yeah, there's always that centrist group that is just as bad as the G O P often in terms of taking telecom money and then scuttling reasonable attempts to impose just basic base consumer protections. The narrative is that net neutrality was radical, right? I mean, that's been their narrative since the beginning, that net neutrality is again, a socialist takeover, the Internet or whatever they want to call it. But it's really actually the rules are fairly modest by international standards, and they're fairly basic. So the idea that this was a radical move, I think what, sorry, go ahead.
Christopher Mitchell (26:25):
And we saw the results, right? I mean, here's the thing is that the rules passed and what did Verizon tell investors? It doesn't change much for us. Yeah,
Karl Bode (26:33):
Christopher Mitchell (26:33):
Right. We're going to invest in a similar way, and here's why. Because ultimately Verizon, at t Comcast Charter, they're picking an appropriate amount of investment based on what it will take to keep their customers. I think Comcast is looking at different fiber builders and the rate of loss and trying to figure out when they need to upgrade Charter spectrum, I think, what do they say? It's like 150, $200 per home to upgrade to the DOCSIS symmetrical, the new standard that's going to allow them to offer much higher capacity speeds. And they're not on a path to do that anytime soon. Like, eh, we don't have to do it right now. Yeah, there's
Karl Bode (27:11):
No competitive pressure.
Christopher Mitchell (27:12):
Net neutrality has almost zero weight, and maybe it has a half of a percentage point of a weight on how they'd make their investment decisions. It's very small.
Karl Bode (27:22):
And it's also important to note that passing net neutrality rules are one thing, but having a regulator consistently enforce them on any meaningful scale in a country of this size is something else. So even if we have net neutrality rules that you don't like, the chance of them being consistently enforced are pretty slim. I mean, honestly,
Christopher Mitchell (27:38):
You might remember the number, was it like 9 billion that was at stake in the mobility fund under the Trump administration when they found that the wireless company had systematically lied about their speeds and whatnot, and then you couldn't even call it a slap on the wrist as to what the result was?
Karl Bode (27:55):
Yeah. I mean, they do take action. It's usually pretty thin, and the fines are a very small amount of the money that whatever money was made off of the sleazy behavior to begin with. So there's not much real incentive. That's why it comes back to competition. It comes back to driving competition to markets where I think you can have the biggest impact. And most of these federal regulators that are so obsessed with claiming that they support bridging the digital divide generally don't say much about monopoly power and don't really have any solutions for monopoly power. And many of them don't support community broadband networks. Many of the politicians that could provide really strong messaging support for community broadband networks, organic local responses to monopoly power, they have nothing to say about it. So in that sense, I worry a little bit that the net neutrality debate, which is important, kind of obscures the more important issue to me, which would be monopoly power and having regulators with the political courage to actually do something about it.
Christopher Mitchell (28:54):
So we need a network neutrality to make sure that the providers aren't, I think, abusing us worse, but it doesn't actually result in the competitive world we want to live in where everyone has high quality access, where it's affordable, where it's very reliable. And those, we don't have data caps. You and I were just talking about, we're both in that approaching our data cap time of the month.
Karl Bode (29:19):
Yeah. I'm in Silicon Valley North, they call Seattle. It's supposed to be one of the biggest tech centers in the United States, and my only broadband choice is capped Comcast service. That's my only option. And I'm six miles from downtown. Yeah. And my situation is very common. I think it's much more important to focus any regulatory power we have on driving competitors market, supporting smaller businesses, supporting small wisps, supporting community broadband cooperatives, city owned utilities. That's where they could have the biggest impact. And they don't do it. They don't do it because they don't want to upset powerful campaign contributors and people tethered to our domestic surveillance and law enforcement systems, they just don't want to do it. They lack the political willpower. So in that, again, I think net neutrality is important, but for people that write about it and talk about it, I think it's important to constantly bring the concept back to the real issue, which is monopoly power.
Christopher Mitchell (30:16):
Yeah. It's also important to the old sellout academics that are looking for one more payday. Maybe they use that money in good ways. I don't know. But we're going to see a fair number of these reports. Actually. Maybe we could play a little game of guests, the next university that we've never heard of before that will suddenly have a new department sponsored by Comcast or Charter or something like that.
Karl Bode (30:37):
Yeah. It's so amazing this week, as soon as the hint that they would restore net neutrality happened, numerous news outlets started pushing editorials from the telecom industry without financial disclosures that their authors work as a lobbyist or policy person for the telecom industry. Bloomberg did it. I saw numerous trade banks circulating these stories about how killing debt neutrality was the best thing to ever happen to the Internet, and it protected a vibrant competitive broadband marketplace. All this rhetoric is pretty much the same exact rhetoric they've been using for five to 10 years, usually dressed up as an objective analysis. And these news outlets do not reveal financial tethers. There's no disclosures at the bottom of these pieces saying that the author took money from the broadband industry or,
Christopher Mitchell (31:23):
Right. And I just want to know when exactly would we have killed the Internet? So if we had maintained the ability for the F C C to overregulate, which is there under title two, the F CCC M theory could overregulate the, was that going to be the Trump administration that overregulate it, or was it going to be a two Biden administration that couldn't do anything that was going to overregulate and strangulate? I'm not sure when the strangulation would've happened.
Karl Bode (31:46):
That's another thing the press doesn't talk about very much, is the fact that our top telecom and media regulator was basically sidelined for seven straight years due to lobby under the Trump administration. They were generally a rubber stamp for anything at t, Comcast and Verizon wanted, they approved mergers, they approved deals, they stripped away consumer protections. They did pretty much everything that industry wanted. And then for two years under Biden, because there was a little sluggishness in even nominating a person to begin with, and then the telecom industry kind of ran smear campaigns against Gigi Sohn. There's another two years where they lacked the voting majority to do anything. So that's seven straight years where the top telecom regulator was sidelined due to lobbying. Now, I know a lot of people aren't thrilled about government intervention, and I know some people have suspicions about government overreach, but I don't think what we want is a regulator that's basically a marionette, a dumb puppet.
I don't think anybody wants that. That doesn't serve competition. It serve innovation. It doesn't drive competitors to market. It makes things worse. And there's a lot of conversations in the press that kind of skip over that fact. So all I'm asking for most of the time when I write is just an honest accounting of what's happening because it's transparent to the public what's happening. It's transparent to people like me that's written about it for 20 years, what's happening. So I'd like to see more regulators with the backbone to acknowledge where we actually are, which is, most of our regulators are on the ropes. They're not going to overreach because there's been a 20 multi-decade campaign to make them as useless as possible. And I think with some of the looming Supreme court decisions like the Chevron deference ruling, which risks basically making it so that regulators can't make any independent decisions based on their policy expertise without an explicit approval of Congress, that's going to get worse.
They know they have Congress lobbied into gridlock. Big companies know that they have Congress lobbied. So people who say, we should pass and that neutrality law and do it the right way, they're being disingenuous because that's never getting through Congress. They effectively own at least half of Congress. I mean, I would say maybe even higher. So the idea that you're supposed to do this through Congress is kind of laughable. And now they're taking aim at the last vestiges of regulatory oversight. And I personally think it's kind of shocking that people haven't been talking more about the massive ramifications that could have across environmental protection, consumer protection, safety regulations. It's a big deal, and it's coming fast.
Christopher Mitchell (34:03):
I do think there's going to be a blowback. I mean, I think it's one of those things as people see the results, we don't have an e p A without rivers burning, unfortunately. So it takes us a while sometimes, but I don't lose hope, and I don't want to end this on such a realistic, pessimistic note. So let's talk about a realistic, optimistic note.
Karl Bode (34:23):
I think the reform is perfectly possible. I see a lot of vibrance in younger generations. They recognize the playing field for what it is they're involved. I see young people voting. I'm actually not pessimistic about it, and I agree with you that it has to get a little worse to get better. People have to see the real world impacts of stripping away the authority of all your regulators before they say, okay, maybe I don't want an F C C that blindly does whatever Comcast tells it to.
Christopher Mitchell (34:49):
But I did want to end on a local optimistic note, I feel like, which is, we've been working with you to document a lot of cool local stories. Is there anything that pops into your head as a good one? You want to just give us a quick summary on to end on a positive? Yeah.
Karl Bode (35:03):
I've been impressed by Vermont, their development of communications districts, little coagulations of counties that work together to deploy broadband. There's countless examples. Every week I talk to a different town and city that's building some new idea buoyed by the massive amounts of infrastructure funding that's coming down the lane. So I am optimistic, but I think all the fights for the next five, 10 years are local fights. I think a lot of the biggest fights are street by street, and you can build that outward and get people motivated and interested to then rebuild some kind of competent federal oversight of systems. But there's no shortage of amazing stuff going on. What is it? 900 communities at this point?
Christopher Mitchell (35:44):
It's in that area. Yeah. Have some sort of municipal network investment.
Karl Bode (35:49):
Yeah. I do see a lot of change, and I see a lot of people, a lot of really engaged local activists fighting block by block, and that's very encouraging. My thing was I spent 20 years writing about federal regulatory dysfunction. So through that lens, things are very grim. But if you stop and you go visit the local towns and you talk to people that are actually building the networks, there's a lot of great things happening. Amazing stuff. I do feel buoyed from that.
Christopher Mitchell (36:13):
Thank you for joining us, and thank you for writing so many great stories for us.
Karl Bode (36:18):
Thank you. I appreciate it.
Ry Marcattilio (36:19):
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