Mere days before Donald Trump’s helicopter shrank into the skies, we got a promising early indication that telecom companies’ hog-wild joyride under Trump’s FCC is coming to an end. Last week, Charter Communications, the company behind Spectrum, withdrew its petition to impose data caps: basically its attempt to restrict customers’ internet usage in order to force them to spend more money. The FCC announced yesterday that Charter had withdrawn its petition, which it filed in June, just a few months into the pandemic.
The Democrat-run FCC under Obama initially forbade Charter Communications from imposing data caps until 2023, as a condition of its 2016 merger with Time Warner Cable. The idea was to prevent the company from having a profit-advantage over the competition. Trump-appointed FCC Chairman and telecoms stooge Ajit Pai said it was “about the government micromanaging the internet economy.” Preventing a broadband company from price-gouging isn’t micromanagement, but that’s the type of lingo Pai’s used across the board for the basic functions of the regulatory body he’s overseen.
In its petition, Charter argued that everybody is streaming everything now, and data caps haven’t hurt competitors like Comcast, AT&T, Cox, and Altice, ergo “the market is working.” Advocacy groups like Stop the Cap! argued that consumers hate data caps, citing “bill shock” from Time Warner’s imposed fines on accidental overages. Charter argued that consumers in fact love data caps because they provide a “cost-effective alternative” to unlimited plans.
In a statement emailed to Gizmodo, Charter explained that the timing had only to do with the pandemic. “In light of the ongoing severity of the global pandemic and its effects on our customers, we want to offer them the assurance that they will continue to benefit from unlimited access to broadband and the accompanying financial certainty it provides during these trying times,” it said, “and therefore have withdrawn our petition.”
This is a heel-turn from Charter’s previous position that the pandemic should have no bearing on a decision to allow it to impose data caps, namely because Charter has waived fees and increased pay for front line workers. [UPDATE 3/10/21: One Spectrum contractor told Gizmodo that the company has not offered any pay increase during the pandemic. They claim that their tasks were repeatedly misclassified, and as a result, their pay went down.] An FCC filing literally included the header: “Charter Has Provided Substantial Assistance to Subscribers During the COVID-19 Pandemic, Which Provides No Justification for Continuing the Conditions.”
It’s all but certain that Charter would’ve had a better shot at getting data caps under Chairman Pai, who summed himself up early in his term as Chairman with a casual crack about himself as a “Verizon puppet” and then he lived up to the legend.
Pai recently told the Wall Street Journal that the Republican-led anti-regulatory approach has increased broadband access and expedited the building of infrastructure. In May 2020, Democratic FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel pointed out that the true scope of expansion is immeasurable because ISPs hadn’t provided accurate data. He repealed net neutrality, made it easy for ISPs to bury disclosures, abandoned efforts to impose caps on appallingly high costs of prison calls, and gestured toward gutting Section 230 to appease Republicans (though there was no realistic way for him to do so). Fight for the Future’s executive director called him “one of the most corrupt government officials of the century.”
The FCC isn’t necessarily fixed. It currently includes two Democrats and two Trump appointees, both of whom support the GOP’s agenda to nuke Section 230. (One of them, Nathan Simington, is believed to have helped draft Trump’s meaningless executive order to punish Twitter). President Biden’s nominee for Chairman will need to be approved by the Senate. The Biden FCC has a lot of damage to undo, but we can hope for a more transparently-ruled, affordable, and equitable internet.