Since becoming chairman of the FCC, Ajit Pai has claimed he will make broadband access one of his “top priorities.” He has repeatedly vowed to work to fix the “digital divide” between “those who can use cutting-edge communications services and those who do not.” But everything he has done so far has indicated that the man is full of shit.
For those just joining us, Pai has been a very busy since assuming his chair a few weeks ago. There was his decision to end the investigation into zero-rating (providers allowing unlimited data for their content), a blow to net neutrality. He withdrew a report showing the success of the E-rate program, which subsidizes broadband in schools. He revoked approval for nine companies to provide broadband under the LifeLine program, which subsidizes service for low-income consumers. And the FCC has stopped defending its rules limiting the amount providers can charger prisoners for phone calls, which has nothing to do with broadband but is extremely messed up.
These actions—several of which came all at once on a Friday afternoon—did not inspire confidence in Pai. In fact, it looks a lot like he intends to roll back everything done by the Obama-era FCC as fast as possible; even if the scope of some of these actions was relatively narrow, the signs were ominous. But what exactly can we expect Chairman Pai to do to bridge the digital divide, as he has promised?
One possible source of enlightenment is the “digital empowerment agenda” Pai released when he was still a commissioner in September. The agenda outlines his plan to “empower Americans living in every community in our nation.” The plan has four points: establishing “gigabit opportunity zones” in low-income areas; expanding mobile broadband availability in rural areas; removing regulatory barriers to broadband infrastructure deployment; and promoting innovation. The gigabit opportunity zones—any area with a median income lower than 75 percent of the national median would qualify—would be established through “significant tax incentives” to “spur private-sector gigabit broadband deployment,” as well as a tax credit to incentivize job creation. For mobile broadband, Pai’s agenda would subsidize new networks and increase the build-out obligations of wireless carriers (requiring them to improve coverage).
This plan was released before he became chair, and it’s not intended to be a roadmap for his chairmanship—the FCC can’t create tax incentives, for example. But the flaws in it highlight exactly how empty his commitment to ending the digital divide really is.
Take the commitment to gigabit broadband in poorer areas, for instance. That sounds great, even progressive, on the surface. But as the advocacy group Free Press pointed out in a letter sent to Pai last month, merely having access to a service is “meaningless” if it isn’t also affordable—if Comcast starts selling $140-a-month gigabit broadband in an area, that does nothing for people who couldn’t afford $50 a month. That sentiment was echoed by Nicol Turner-Lee, a fellow at the Brookings Institution’s Center for Innovation and Technology who told Gizmodo that “putting a highly-advanced broadband product in a very densely poor community is not going to work.” It’s a “digital mismatch,” she said.
Angela Siefer, director the National Digital Inclusion Alliance, told Gizmodo that while it’s good to see Pai talking about these issues, there’s a lot to be concerned about. To begin with, the term “digital divide” is outdated and inaccurate, she says, because “it gives a false impression that there is only one divide.” Pai’s agenda focuses on building out infrastructure, which is necessary, but “the physical lines themselves are only one piece” of the solution, according to Siefer. The biggest barrier is, she says, cost, followed by digital literacy.
There are already programs in place that Pai could support if he wanted to address affordability. LifeLine, for example, is something that Pai could actually improve or expand—the FCC can’t create tax incentives, but it can strengthen LifeLine. But the signs aren’t good on that front so far, with the decision to revoke nine companies’ approval to provide broadband through the program. Siefer told Gizmodo that two NDIA affiliates who had previously been considering applying for LifeLine approval had told her that they dropped those plans because they “don’t want to waste [their] time.” Pai’s aforementioned decision to revoke LifeLine approvals had essentially scared them off.
Another notable thing missing from the plan is any mention of alternatives to the private sector, like public-private partnerships or municipal broadband. Siefer points out that the digital empowerment agenda calls for removing “regulatory barriers”—pole attachment rates, for example, that companies pay when they add their service to existing cable lines—but she says that would also mean states wouldn’t limit publicly-owned networks. She’s referring here to situations like the one in Chattanooga, where a successful municipal broadband program is prevented by Tennessee law from expanding beyond the borders of the municipality. When the Chattanooga broadband service appealed to the FCC to overturn this law, Pai strongly objected, saying that the FCC doesn’t have the authority to overturn state rules. Yet his digital empowerment agenda calls for the FCC to “remove state and local barriers to deployment.” And Siefer points out that many of these regulations are ones people want and need: without regulation about broadband deployment, she says, we could see digital redlining, whereby companies refuse to develop in areas that are too poor to pay premium prices.
It remains to be seen if Pai’s first steps, like revoking LifeLine authorizations or rescinding the E-rate report, indicate bigger plans to gut those programs. It also remains to be seen whether the the digital empowerment agenda represents the bones of a plan that will eventually incorporate affordability and digital equity, or a cover for tax giveaways to big telecoms that don’t improve access or affordability. The plan doesn’t even address issues of affordability, either through improving competition or anything else. Pai has made digital divide rhetoric central to his leadership, but until he backs that up with actions that bring the internet to those who have been left behind, don’t give him credit for his sweet talk.