In 2017, the FCC made life easier for your internet provider

It’s a little less clear whether you and other consumers really benefited.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

President Donald Trump's Federal Communications Commission has wasted little time making big and small changes to your life -- even if you haven't noticed.

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who enjoys a 3-2 Republican majority on the commission, has taken Trump's pro-business, anti-regulation ethos to heart and has raced to roll back rules governing how the internet and service providers work. It's a core conservative belief that once companies are freed of governmental red tape, they'll invest more and unleash a torrent of economic growth.

FCC Holds Vote On Repeal Of Net Neutrality Rules

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai speaks to the media after the Dec. 14 meeting where the commission voted 3-2 to repeal net neutrality rules. 

Alex Wong / Getty Images

The rollback earlier this month of the rules governing net neutrality, or the principle that all internet traffic should be treated fairly, was the most high-profile step taken by the FCC. But Pai also made sweeping changes to the Lifeline program, which subsidizes the cost of phone and broadband service for millions of poor and disabled people, and he's made it easier for big media companies to merge by loosening many of the rules that bar such massive consolidation.

Pai's supporters applaud his efforts as a "long overdue dose of reform to bring sanity and transparency to a rogue, lawless agency," according to Berin Szoka, president of TechFreedom, a conservative Washington-based think tank. But his detractors see many of the  moves as harmful to consumers. FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a Democrat, is one of them.

"During the first 10 months of 2017, the FCC majority has given the green light to more than a dozen actions that are a direct attack on consumers and small businesses," Clyburn said in November. "And most Americans are unaware that the agency established to protect the public interest has traded in that role for the chance to grant the wish lists of billion-dollar companies."

Here's a look back at some of the most controversial moves the FCC made in the past year.

Net neutrality repeal

Even before he got the chairman job, Pai made no secret of his plans to take "a weed wacker" to the controversial net neutrality regulations adopted in 2015 under President Barack Obama.

He and his two fellow Republican commissioners did just that this month when they voted to dismantle the Obama-era rules. Those rules had prevented internet providers from blocking or slowing access to the internet for some and offering "fast lanes" on the internet for companies willing to pay.

Pai's stance has been that the rules aren't needed and the FCC had overstepped its authority by reclassifying broadband as a utility to impose stricter regulation on the networks. He said the rules, which had only been on the books for two years, hurt investment and would ultimately lead to fewer people having broadband service. But he went further than previous Republican FCC chairmen and turned over responsibility for overseeing broadband providers to another agency, the Federal Trade Commission.

Critics, like his predecessor Tom Wheeler, a Democrat, said Pai's move was nothing more than a gift to large broadband and wireless companies.

"This is a classic example of regulatory capture," Wheeler said on a call with the press in early December. "Trump's FCC, along with the Republican Congress, are taking away existing consumer protections as the request of the industry they are supposed to be overseeing."

Watch this: Beer helps explain battle brewing over net neutrality

While net neutrality enjoys popular support, Pai has his defenders.

"The idea that he's pro-ISP has been manufactured by big tech companies who benefited from government favoritism during the Obama era and now see it coming to an end," said Fred Campbell, director of the group Tech Knowledge and a former chief of the FCC's Wireless Bureau under Republican Kevin Martin.

Consumer groups are expected to file lawsuits challenging the FCC's rollback as soon as the repeal order is published in the Federal Register early next year.

Relinquished FCC authority and consumer privacy

A big part of Pai's agenda in 2017 with respect to broadband was handing over much of its responsibility as the beat cop to the FTC. Pai argued that the FCC under Democratic control had overstepped its authority in a power grab.

One of his first moves as chairman was to stop a rule, adopted in the last 60 days of the Obama administration, that put stricter requirements on broadband companies to protect consumer data from hackers.

Pai argued that broadband companies should follow the same rules as those for internet companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter. Each of these companies' privacy practices are policed by the FTC.  

Privacy hawks said that FTC oversight was insufficient and that the FCC should be the one ensuring consumer privacy is protected and not sold to the highest bidder.

Republicans in Congress then used the Congressional Review Act to repeal the rules for good.

Sinclair merger, media ownership rules

The Republican-led FCC is making good on its promise to deregulate the telecom and media industries. That includes a revamp of media ownership rules that will make it easier for big companies to own newspapers and more broadcast stations in a single market.

Critics, like FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, a Democrat, say this has been a giveaway to media giant Sinclair Broadcast Group, which is planning a $39 billion takeover of Tribune Media.

In November, the commission voted to loosen 40-year-old media ownership rules. Under these changes, broadcasters could combine with a newspaper in the same market. They also could own two of the top four stations in any city. The new rules will likely be challenged in court, but if they survive, they are a significant change in media ownership regulations and could lead to further consolidation.

In December, the agency opened a proceeding to raise the 39 percent national media ownership cap on audience reach.

"Instead of engaging in thoughtful reform, which we should do, the agency sets its most basic values on fire. They are gone," Rosenworcel said. "The FCC is giving the green light for a single company to own the newspaper and multiple television and radio stations in your community."

Critics say these rule changes will result in increased media consolidation and fewer points of view at a time when consumers need access to a diversity of opinions.

Lifeline reform

Then there's Lifeline, a program designed to help poor and disabled people afford mobile phone service by offering a $9.25 subsidy.

Critics say Pai has taken a hatchet to a program he's criticized as rife with waste, fraud and abuse. As part of his effort to reform the program, he passed a measure to consider limiting which companies can participate in the program, essentially kicking companies that resell service. He's also proposed instituting a hard funding cap on the program and delayed implementation of a nationwide verifier program that's supposed to help root out fraud and abuse.

Those actions aren't reforms, critics contend, but rather an effort to devastate the program. They say that cutting out resellers offering competitive rates means prices will likely jump despite the subsidy.

"It's shocking what he's doing to Lifeline," said Gigi Sohn, a onetime adviser to Wheeler.

Redefined competition

If you're an antiregulation conservative in charge of a regulatory agency, what's the best way to make sure you don't have to impose new rules and can roll back old ones? Declare that the market is competitive. That's exactly what the FCC started to do in 2017.

After eight years in a row in which the FCC did not conclude the wireless market was competitive, in September it issued its 20th annual report and came to a different conclusion. Shocker: The market's competitive.

Critics say Pai's team cherry-picked data to come to this conclusion. His Democratic colleagues on the commission vigorously opposed the report's findings. Rosenworcel said the report failed to define what effective competition actually is. An "I know it when I see it" standard isn't good enough, she said.

But that wasn't the only measure Pai's FCC has undertaken to redefine competition. Pai also initiated an inquiry to change how the FCC defines broadband. Under Wheeler, the FCC voted to count services with download speeds of 25Mbps as broadband. Pai has proposed dialing that back to 10Mbps, which would essentially mean that when considering competition in the broadband market, a lot more services would qualify, including cellular service.

Rosenworcel called the plan "crazy" in a tweet. "Lowering standards doesn't solve our broadband problems."

Amid the controversies of his first year, Pai argues he's trying to help consumers by making it easier for companies to invest in their businesses to deliver more and better services. One thing's clear: Pai moves quickly, and there are likely to be more changes in 2018.

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