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Federal Communications Commission Vote on Net Neutrality Reprises Deep Partisan Divisions



Screenshot from the FCC October meeting

October 27, 2020 — Tensions ran high during the Federal Communications Commission’s October meeting on Tuesday, as the agency’s five commissioners were forced to take a defining partisan vote in response to the D.C. Court of Appeals remand on the agency’s December 2017 repeal of net neutrality rules.

In 2017, the Republican-led Trump FCC ended less than three years of what some have criticized as utility-style regulation of the internet. Under Chairman Ajit Pai, the agency returned broadband internet access service to its long-standing classification as an information service under Title I of the Communications Act.

The circuit court upheld the vast majority of the Restoring Internet Freedom Order, but remanded three discrete issues for further consideration. These were its impact upon public safety, pole attachments, and universal service support for low income consumers through the Lifeline Program.

See “D.C. Circuit’s Decision in Net Neutrality Case Likely to Open New Fronts of Attack Against FCC,” Broadband Breakfast, October 7, 2019

During Tuesday’s meeting, the commissioners voted 3-2 on party lines to conclude that there was no basis to alter the agency’s conclusions from 2017.

“Competition has increased,” said Commissioner Brendan Carr, “with the percentage of Americans with more than two options for high-speed internet increasing by 52 percent, all while prices have been decreasing.”

Yet they largely avoided mention of the issues surrounding utility pole attachments and the Lifeline program, Republican commissioners talked about how different nations’ internet networks are holding up in comparison to the United States. They also joked about potentially having to pay for social media posts.

Carr said that the networks of counties that have taken a heavier or utility-style approach to regulating the internet have “strained to maintain quality and speed” throughout the global pandemic, referencing when European Union officials, in March, asked Netflix to reduce its video streaming quality to reduce network strain.

Chairman Ajit Pai reverted to emotional appeal, saying his family received violent death threats following the 2017 repeal Opponents of his ”internet freedom” order waged, he said, “one of the most dishonest scare campaigns ever seen.”

Pai maintained that the internet economy is as good as ever, with internet speeds and coverage readily increasing under his leadership.

Democrats say FCC data shows broadband markets are not competitive

Democratic Commissioners criticized the GOP members for doubling down on the issue in the midst of the pandemic. They urged greater regulation of broadband services.

Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel disagreed with the idea that the 2017 net neutrality repeal aided consumers. “FCC data shows that our broadband markets are not competitive. Many in this country have no choice in broadband providers,” said Rosenworcel, adding that “this administration is suing states that try to close the broadband void created when the FCC stepped out.”

She called today’s vote an opportunity for the agency to step back in, saying the rollback of net neutrality does not get the country any closer to broadband for all. Rosenworcel also called for broadband to be regulated similarly to utilities, such as water and electricity.

Commissioner Geoffrey Starks criticized Carr and Pai’s arguments, saying that the successes of American networks are not due to changes on net neutrality. He further argued about negative outcomes for the FCC’s Lifeline Program because of reduced FCC authority to oversee ISPs.

“When the FCC added broadband access to Lifeline it was based under its Title II authority,” he said, adding “now with this strained legal reasoning the majority would rather disconnect over 8 million Lifeline subscribers, rather than subject ISPs to any FCC oversight.”

Starks said that of nearly 300 broadband plans in 28 cities across the world, the United States has the highest average monthly prices for home broadband.

“30 percent of Black, Latinx, and other non-white households earning less than $30,000 a year have missed at least one internet bill since the pandemic,” Starks said.

Referencing the Chairman’s Keep Americans Connected Pledge, Starks said “While I’m glad internet service providers pledged not to disconnect consumers, the order has removed the FCC’s ability to enforce this voluntary commitment. The pledge ended five months ago. As our country faces historic levels of unemployment and economic distress, the FCC has no authority to prevent providers from disconnecting customers who cannot pay their bills.”

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FCC to Consider ‘Rapid Response Team’ for Pole Attachment Disputes at December Meeting

Proposed rules would also put more limits on when utilities can pass full replacement costs to telecom companies.



Photo of a utility pole by Scott Akerman.

WASHINGTON, November 28, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission is considering setting up a “rapid response team” to resolve pole attachment disputes, according to a public draft of the proposed rules.

The Rapid Broadband Assessment Team, or RBAT, would be available to resolve disagreements that “impede or delay broadband deployment,” according to the proposed rules. The team would be responsible for quickly engaging both sides of a pole attachment dispute and working to find a solution, which can include staff-supervised mediation.

If the parties cannot come to an agreement, the RBAT can place their dispute on the commission’s “Accelerated Docket,” meaning the FCC would adjudicate the issue in under 60 days. Not all disputes are eligible for the Accelerated Docket, as the tight time constraint makes it difficult to resolve novel or complex cases.

The commission is also considering requiring utility companies to provide attachers with their most recent pole inspection information. That’s an effort to avoid disputes before they start, according to the proposed rules.

Expanding broadband networks often involves attaching equipment to poles owned by utility companies. The arrangement has led to ongoing disputes on replacement costs and other issues between telecommunications and utility companies.

The FCC has authority under the 1996 Communications Act to set the terms of those pole attachment deals and is looking to have a system in place for expediting disputes ahead of the Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion effort. That authority only stretches to the 26 states that have not passed their own laws on pole attachments.

Pole replacement costs

On pole replacement costs, one of the more contentious pole attachment issues, the proposed rules place more limits on when a utility can force an attacher to pay in full for a replacement pole. The commission’s standing policy prevents pole owners from passing off replacement costs if the new pole is not “necessitated solely” by an attacher’s equipment.

Since the commission first sought comment on the issue in 2022, telecommunications companies have argued that utilities unfairly pass the entire cost of replacement on to them, even when poles are already unsafe and would need to be replaced regardless. Utilities say they would not normally replace the poles being used by telecom companies, either because they are structurally sound or to phase out old lines, and don’t benefit from the installation of newer poles.

The draft rules would expand the commission’s definition of a “red tagged” pole, the replacement of which cannot be allocated entirely to an attacher. Under current FCC rules, a red tagged pole is one that is out of compliance with safety regulations and has been placed on a utility’s replacement schedule.

The updated definition would do away with the compliance requirement, defining a red tagged pole as one flagged for replacement for any reason other than its inability to support extra telecom equipment.

The proposed rules also explicitly clarify some situations in which replacements are not “necessitated solely” by new telecom equipment, including when a pole fails engineering standards or is already on a replacement schedule.

In addition, the rules specify that when an already defective pole needs to be replaced with a larger pole to accommodate new equipment, the attacher would only be responsible for the extra cost of the larger pole, not the cost of an equivalent pole.

If the proposed rules are approved, the FCC would also look for comments on processing bulk pole attachment applications and on changing rules on when attachers can do their own work to prepare a pole for attachments.

The measures will be voted on at the commission’s December 13 meeting.

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FCC Aims to Combat Video Service ‘Junk’ Fees

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel proposes a new way to eliminate junk fees.



Photo of Jessica Rosenworcel courtesy the FCC

November 21, 2023 – The head of the Federal Communications Commission announced Tuesday a proposal to eliminate video service junk fees incurred by cable operators and direct broadcast satellite service providers.

The proposal by Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel would prohibit cable operators and DBS providers from charging subscribers early contract termination fees and require those providers to issue a prorated credit or rebate for remaining days in a monthly billing cycle after cancellation. 

It will be voted on at the commission’s open meeting next month. 

“Because these fees may have the effect of limiting consumer choice after a contract is enacted, it may negatively impact competition for services in the marketplace,” said a press release. 

“No one wants to pay junk fees for something they don’t want or can’t use.  When companies charge customers early termination fees, it limits their freedom to choose the service they want,” said Rosenworcel. 

In October, President Joe Biden addressed his administration’s effort to combat junk fees, part of a larger goal to provide consumers choice by way of cost reduction outlined in an executive order on which was signed into effect in July of 2021. 

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FCC to Vote on Pole Attachments at December Meeting

Telecom and utility companies have been clashing on replacement costs.



Photo of utility poles from Flickr user Chic Bee.

WASHINGTON, November 21, 2023 – The Federal Communications Commission announced on Tuesday that it will consider rules on pole attachments at its December meeting.

The commission first sought comment on the issue in March 2022. It asked stakeholders for input on how costs should be allocated when utility poles need to be replaced to accommodate new telecommunications equipment. 

Utility and telecom companies have strong positions on the issue. They have submitted over 4,100 comments to the FCC so far and are continuing to lobby, with AT&T and the cable company trade group NCTA meeting with commission staff in recent weeks.

Telecommunications companies have argued to the FCC that utilities unfairly pass the entire cost of replacement on to them, even when poles are already unsafe and would need to be replaced regardless. Utilities, for their part, say they would not normally replace the poles being used by telecom companies, either because they are structurally sound or to phase out old lines, and don’t benefit from the arrangement.

The commission has authority over the pole attachment deals between utility companies and telecom carriers. That does not include publicly owned utilities or broadband providers that solely provide internet. State laws also preempt the FCC’s authority – 24 states have their own guidelines for such deals.

FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel said in a statement that the proposed rules would “make the pole attachment process faster, more transparent, and more cost-effective.” The commission did not respond to a request for comment on the specifics of the rules.

Lawmakers and industry groups have been pushing the commission to issue rules since the comment period ended last year. In April, more than a dozen major telecom companies pushed the commission to issue rules ahead of projects funded by the Biden administration’s $42.5 billion broadband expansion program, citing potential hold ups from pole disputes.

Canadian regulators ruled on the issue in February, requiring pole owners to bear at least half the cost to replace a pole before attaching telecom equipment. The Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission found that pole owners do stand to benefit from newer poles.

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