Former FCC Commissioner: “We Should Be Ashamed Of Ourselves” For State of Broadband In The U.S.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps speaking at the Library of Congress on June 18, 2014.

Former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps speaking at the Library of Congress on June 18, 2014.

In Washington, DC today, a group of internet industry executives and politicians came together to look back on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, and to do a little crystal-ball gazing about the future of broadband regulation in the United States. Former FCC commissioner Michael Copps was among the presenters, and he had sharp words for the audience about the “insanity” of the current wave of merger mania in the telecom field and the looming threats of losing net neutrality regulation.

Copps has been a longtime pro-consumer advocate. He was the lone member of the five-person FCC to vote against the merger of Comcast and NBC, and since the 2010 net neutrality rule was vacated in February he has been urging the FCC to reclassify broadband ISPs as a common carrier service. He has also advocated against continued media consolidation and big telecom mergers.

Several current and former members of Congress spoke first about the 1996 Telecom Act, sharing their memories of bringing the bill to law. Sen. Ed Markey (MA) and former Reps. Thomas Bliley (VA) and John Shadegg (AZ) all praised the bipartisan process that created the regulation, and lauded the capacity for competition that the Act created. In all, both business representatives and lawmakers alike were largely retrospective and celebratory, ignoring the problems that face internet industries and consumers today.

Copps, however, was anything but retrospective when he stood to speak. “I’m not here to celebrate,” he began, “I’m here to advocate.” And the landscape he laid out is indeed not one to cheer for.

He led off by agreeing with the several executive speakers that true competition is the way of the future, and the best way to serve consumers. “But we haven’t given competition the chance it needs,” he continued, before referring to how poorly U.S. broadband compares on the global stage. “We have fallen so far short that we should be ashamed of ourselves. We should be leading, and we’re not. We need to get serious about broadband, we need to get serious about competition, we need to get serious about our country.”

Broadband competition is indeed scarce in the United States, and the looming wave of “merger mania” is unlikely at best to improve the situation for anyone.

For all that the current bout of mergers — Comcast with TWC, AT&T with DirecTV, and maybe even Sprint with T-Mobile — seems inevitable, it’s not. The mania for consolidation, Copps said, did not fall ordained from the hand of God, derive from natural law, or arise organically from an unfettered free market. It is, instead, the result of “conscious public policy choices” that shape the business environment we live in.

And that environment is dire. Even taking into account the previous monopolies of 19th and 20th century industry, Copps said, “there has never been a more urgent need for legislators and regulators” to make moves to protect consumers.

He called back to an earlier speaker, who had pointed out that the internet, to most users, had become about the very core of freedom of expression: the freedom to say, read, and watch what we want. And with “the likelihood of gatekeeper control” impending, in the form of the FCC’s new proposed net neutrality rule, those freedoms are in danger.

In the end, Copps directly challenged both the FCC and current members of Congress to do more, and do better. “Our democracy depends on what happens between now and the end of this year,” he said. “Are we going to have regulators and legislators with enough gumption to make this happen?”

“I know it can,” he added, calling on the audience in the room to speak up and make their voices heard with lawmakers. But ultimately, he concluded, it all boils down to two questions:

“Whose internet is it anyway? And whose democracy is it anyway?”