Net Neutrality Was Hurting Poor People, Says Trump’s FCC Chair

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FCC Chairman Ajit Pai says millions of rural Americans lack broadband access — and net neutrality is to blame.

Why don’t more impoverished Americans have reliable broadband access?  The reason, according to FCC chairman Ajit Pai, is net neutrality.

In a speech recently delivered to members of the American Cable Association (ACA), Pai argued that heavy-handed government regulations have been holding back broadband deployment.  In turn, that has limited the ability of major broadband providers to expand their coverage into rural, impoverished areas of the U.S.

The American Cable Association is a lobbying group for small- and medium-sized cable companies, most of whom have diversified into internet access.  The Association was one of Pai’s major supporters in the December 2017 vote to repeal net neutrality rules.

Pai asserted that the FCC’s previous net neutrality rules amounted to  “regulatory onslaught,” and a yoke for ISPs.  “It was the largest deterrent to network investment,” Pai declared.

And this was the statistic that proves it — at least for Pai: 30 percent of rural Americans lack broadband internet access at home, a figure that Pai argues was caused by onerous neutrality regulations.

“Money that could have expanded networks was now being siphoned off to pay lawyers and consultants to make sense of the new rules,” Pai claimed.  “Resources were spent developing plans to minimize the risk of enforcement actions.  Some of you even started setting money aside for litigation reserves.  We’re talking about time, money, and lawyers that your companies can’t easily afford.”

Pai’s impassioned defense of the FCC’s net neutrality repeal was rooted in concern for impoverished Americans.

Pai argued that poor people have been leveled by the digital divide, with ISPs unable to reach them because of neutrality rules.  And these Americans want access, not neutrality.  “Contrary to what some Beltway politicians and special interests assert, consumers’ top complaint about the internet is not — and has never been — that their ISP is doing things like blocking content,” Pai argued.  “It’s that they don’t have sufficient access and competition.  Well, greater access and competition requires private investment.”

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Pai received enthusiastic applause for his defense of the net neutrality repeal.  But the claim that lifting Title II net neutrality rules will spur a major expansion is unproven.  Alternatively, ISPs like Verizon, Comcast, and Cox Communications may simply hoard profits from paid ‘fast lanes’ and other access fees.   They may also use throttling as a weapon against competitive sites, a tool designed to boost overall profits from non-access businesses.

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Whether those ‘savings’ get redeployed into broadband expansion for lower-income communities remains speculative.

But Pai expressed certainty that his repeal is already unleashing major infrastructure expansion.  “I’m proud to say that last year, we reversed the Title II Order,” Pai declared.  “We restored the light-touch approach to network regulation that served us well for almost 20 years, paving the way for over $1.5 trillion in private investment to build out wired and wireless networks.”

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Oddly, Pai is already showing data to prove that ISPs are expanding — even though net neutrality hasn’t yet been repealed.  As ‘proof,’ Pai pointed to expansions by AT&T, Verizon, and Frontier, though given the pre-repeal timing, those ‘case studies’ may actually prove the opposite.

Meanwhile, 36 U.S. states — representing nearly 70% of the country’s population — are actively fighting the net neutrality repeal.

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The net neutrality resistance. Black = state law passed protecting net neutrality; Orange = Executive Order signed by state governor to protect net neutrality; Dark Gray = net neutrality bill successfully passed both state legislative chambers; Blue = net neutrality bill introduced into legislature; Brown = state attorney general filing suit against the FCC; Green = 100+ municipalities have approved taxpayer-funded ISPs; Red Star = mayor is a member of Mayors for Net Neutrality Coalition; Light Gray = no state action.

That pushback includes many states with rural, impoverished communities.

Legislators in West Virginia and Kentucky, for example, have both introduced bills to protect net neutrality in their states.  The attorney general of Mississippi, recently ranked as the poorest state in the U.S., has also filed suit against the FCC.

Others are aggressively fighting back, regardless of their economic ranking.  Washington State, for example, recently became the first state to pass a net neutrality law.  And California’s Senate recently introduced the toughest measure yet to protect net neutrality.  Of course, those are wealthier states, though both have their pockets of rural poverty.

Meanwhile, the state-level pushback is likely to widen, with Americans showing overwhelming support for net neutrality protections.

Here’s the text of Pai’s speech.