FCC’s Pai Makes Waves

Sound & Vision - - SIGNALS -

No Fed­eral Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Com­mis­sion chair in liv­ing mem­ory has changed so much, so fast, as Repub­li­can Ajit Pai. De­spite be­ing a critic of ac­tivist gov­ern­ment, he has taken an ac­tivist role in re­shap­ing the com­mis­sion that over­sees the na­tion’s tele­com law, sweep­ing away reg­u­la­tory reg­i­mens that took decades for com­mis­sion­ers of both par­ties to cre­ate, craft, and main­tain. In re­cent news, he’s made his in­flu­ence felt in net neu­tral­ity and TV broad­cast­ing.

Why are you hear­ing so much about net neu­tral­ity? Imag­ine get­ting a let­ter from your lo­cal elec­tric util­ity say­ing you’re al­lowed to run a heater un­der your cur­rent plan, but if you want to run an air con­di­tioner, you’ll have to up­grade to a higher tier of ser­vice. Or imag­ine how you’d feel about your lo­cal wa­ter util­ity if you got a healthy spray from the show­er­head but the bath­tub faucet ran so slowly that it took an hour to fill the tub. Oh, and your home theater sys­tem just in­formed you that it re­fuses to play Led Zep­pelin— would you like some Justin Bieber in­stead?

That’s a metaphor­i­cal equiv­a­lent of the night­mare sce­nario Pai’s FCC has just de­creed by re­fus­ing to use its long­stand­ing Ti­tle II au­thor­ity to reg­u­late in­ter­net ser­vice providers as pub­lic util­i­ties. The iron­i­cally named Restor­ing In­ter­net Free­dom or­der elim­i­nates rules against block­ing in­ter­net-pro­vided ser­vices, throt­tling them with re­duced band­width, or pri­or­i­tiz­ing ser­vices that have paid the ISP for ac­cess.

Pai is pass­ing the buck from the FCC to the Fed­eral Trade Com­mis­sion, which has a dif­fer­ent but ar­guably not as ef­fec­tive reg­u­la­tory tool­box. Un­like the FCC, it is not a tele­com reg­u­la­tor—in fact, it is pro­hib­ited from reg­u­lat­ing “com­mon car­ri­ers” such as phone com­pa­nies, and a re­cent fed­eral court de­ci­sion ex­tended that pro­hi­bi­tion to non-phone ser­vices such as broad­band. So Pai is pin­ning our hopes for an open in­ter­net on a tooth­less tiger.

For a har­bin­ger of the fu­ture, look no fur­ther than Por­tu­gal, where ISPs al­ready of­fer rig­or­ously tiered ser­vice. Many of the in­ter­net ser­vices you take for granted carry ad­di­tional charges, in­clud­ing e-mail, so­cial net­work­ing, mes­sag­ing, mu­sic, and video. Want to use Gmail, Face­book, and Spo­tify? That’s five euros ex­tra per month—each. Ka-ching, ka-ching, ka-ching. In the fu­ture, your in­ter­net ser­vice may look more like your ca­ble TV ser­vice, with in­ces­sant rate hikes, tiers of­fer­ing lim­ited op­tions, and pricey pre­mium ser­vices. Twit­ter may be­come the new HBO.

ISPs claim they won’t use their new­found free­dom—but they’re al­ready do­ing it. Mo­bile broad­band providers al­ready ex­empt fa­vored video ser­vices from data caps. The con­sumer is now like the prover­bial frog in a saucepan. Turn up the heat slowly, and she’s not as quick to no­tice she’s be­ing cooked.

In other FCC news, Pai’s Repub­li­can FCC ma­jor­ity has moved to in­crease con­cen­tra­tion of own­er­ship in TV broad­cast­ing. For­merly, me­dia cross-own­er­ship rules pre­vented a sin­gle com­pany from own­ing TV or ra­dio sta­tions and news­pa­pers in the same metro area. The im­me­di­ate ef­fect is to green-light a $3.9 bil­lion merger be­tween the Sinclair Broad­cast Group and Tri­bune Me­dia. Crit­ics note that Sinclair is al­ready no­to­ri­ous for forc­ing its sta­tions to air ide­o­log­i­cally charged pro-

pa­ganda. Now it will be­come a broad­cast­ing colos­sus reach­ing 70 per­cent of U.S. TV house­holds.

State at­tor­neys gen­eral from Illi­nois, Mary­land, Mas­sachusetts, and Rhode Is­land are ask­ing the FCC to ax the deal, de­cry­ing “in­creased con­sol­i­da­tion that will de­crease con­sumer choices and voices in the mar­ket­place.” Thir­teen Demo­cratic sen­a­tors have urged the FCC’s in­spec­tor gen­eral to in­ves­ti­gate ties be­tween Pai and Sinclair, not­ing that they met shortly be­fore the cross-own­er­ship rules were gut­ted. This, they say, “sug­gests a dis­turb­ing pat­tern of a three-way quid pro quo in­volv­ing Sinclair, the Trump ad­min­is­tra­tion, and Pai.”

The FCC has also fol­lowed through on Pai’s vow to kill the “main stu­dio rule,” which re­quires TV sta­tions to main­tain news­cast­ing stu­dios in com­mu­ni­ties where they are li­censed to op­er­ate. This will save broad­cast­ers (in­clud­ing Sinclair) a bun­dle. Pai’s FCC says the 77-year-old rule

“has out­lived its use­ful­ness in an era of mo­bile news gath­er­ing and multiple con­tent de­liv­ery plat­forms.” But cut­ting news­gath­er­ing in­fra­struc­ture may un­der­cut lo­cal re­port­ing in times of emer­gency when boots on the ground make a real dif­fer­ence.

In less dis­cour­ag­ing news, Pai’s FCC has ap­proved ATSC 3.0, the next-gen­er­a­tion broad­cast TV stan­dard. It joins, but does not re­place, the ex­ist­ing ATSC 1.0, which ini­ti­ated the tran­si­tion from ana­log to dig­i­tal broad­cast­ing and the dawn of the HDTV era. Among the at­trac­tions of ATSC 3.0 are Ul­tra HD res­o­lu­tion, ob­jec­to­ri­ented sur­round, mo­bile broad­cast­ing, ad­vanced emer­gency alerts, and cloud DVR record­ing from live broad­casts. Im­ple­men­ta­tion will be vol­un­tary; so will back­ward-com­pat­i­bil­ity with ex­ist­ing ATSC 1.0. And it will re­quire some fancy foot­work among TV sta­tions in­clud­ing up­dat­ing and shar­ing of broad­cast fa­cil­i­ties.

Some are un­easy about Pai’s ap­proach to ATSC 3.0. The Na­tional Ca­ble & Telecom­mu­ni­ca­tions As­so­ci­a­tion, headed by for­mer Repub­li­can FCC chair Michael Pow­ell, has called for man­dat­ing back­ward-com­pat­i­bil­ity with ATSC 1.0 so view­ers won’t sud­denly find them­selves cut off from an­tenna-de­liv­ered HDTV. Demo­cratic com­mis­sioner Jes­sica Rosen­wor­cel echoed the con­cern about back­ward-com­pat­i­bil­ity, not­ing that Pai’s plan of­fers no sub­sidy to con­sumers for new equip­ment to con­vert ATSC 3.0 to 1.0 for sets with ex­ist­ing HD tuners.

Some crit­ics also see ATSC 3.0 as a boon to Sinclair, a big ATSC 3.0 booster. They in­clude ca­ble op­er­a­tors, who are wary of it be­com­ing an is­sue in al­ways-charged re­trans­mis­sion ne­go­ti­a­tions. How­ever, the Con­sumer Tech­nol­ogy As­so­ci­a­tion’s Gary Shapiro as­serts that the tech­nol­ogy “de­liv­ers over­whelm­ing con­sumer ben­e­fit and does not hurt any ex­ist­ing prod­ucts,” as­sert­ing that “this should not be em­broiled in pol­i­tics and me­dia own­er­ship is­sues.”

Fi­nally, Pai has ap­par­ently de­cided that the in­ter­net is some­thing low-in­come peo­ple can live with­out. The FCC has voted to gut the Life­line pro­gram, which en­ables peo­ple be­low 135 per­cent of the fed­eral poverty line to use a $9.25 sub­sidy to buy in­ter­net or phone ser­vice.—MF

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