Broadband monopoly battles may shift to states when FCC retreats

25 November 2016 by Steve Blum
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A key telecoms advisor to Donald Trump seems to be floating the idea of pushing more broadband regulatory responsibility down to states. Mark Jamison, currently a lecturer at the University of Florida and formerly a staff lobbyist for Sprint, is one half of the Trump transition landing team assigned to the Federal Communications Commission. In a blog post published before the election, he argues that there’s no longer a need for the FCC, as it currently exists…

Telecommunications network providers and ISPs are rarely, if ever, monopolies. If there are instances where there are monopolies, it would seem overkill to have an entire federal agency dedicated to ex ante regulation of their services. A well-functioning Federal Trade Commission (FTC), in conjunction with state authorities, can handle consumer protection and anticompetitive conduct issues.

His assertion that monopolies are rare in telecoms world only makes sense if, say, you assume that mobile service at less than 1.5 Mbps download speed – a common user experience according to testing and analysis done by the California Public Utilities Commission – is the functional equivalent of 100 Mbps cable modem service, and that high priced, high latency satellite broadband meets the same consumer needs as DSL at a fraction of the cost.

But let’s put that aside for now. A logical corollary to his argument is that state regulators are better positioned to judge if an Internet service provider has an effective monopoly, as they see it, and decide what steps to take to address it.

That would be a tempting offer for states, like California, which have effective telecoms regulatory regimes of their own, instead of relying solely on the FCC, as many others do. I don’t think it’s really on the table, though. Jamison told the Washington Post that details such as “the possible need for new state-level powers to address broadband monopolies” would have to be addressed. That’s putting it mildly. A complete overhaul of telecoms law would be required and lawmakers with the fire of federal deregulation in their bellies would not turn around and give that same authority to 50 states.

Even so, current federal law creates a balance of sorts between state and federal telecoms regulators. Depending on how it’s done, curtailing the FCC’s role might leave California with more scope of action. I’m not betting the ranch on that – battalions of deep pocked telecoms lobbyists will fight to the last ditch to keep it from happening – but Californians are not helpless spectators either.