The FCC Needs to End Digital Discrimination

ACORN International Biden Protests

           Marble Falls      While some are tearing their hair about artificial intelligence, TikTok, video streaming, self-driving cars, and autonomous killer drones at the far reaches of the internet and tech world, it continues to be amazing how many of us are still struggling with the ever urgent need to bridge the digital divide for people without access.  “Internet for All,” as ACORN Canada calls the campaign, has been a fight that we’ve been waging there for years.  We continue to make progress with the monopoly providers, but it’s tooth-and-nail, hammer-and-tong, movement by inches, when we need to go miles.

The situation is really no better in the United States, and possibly a good deal worse.  The campaign in Canada was modeled after a program the FCC required of Comcast when they purchased Universal.  The order approving the merger required the company to offer a minimum price of $10 per month access to basic internet as a primary condition.  Comcast largely honored the agreement in the breach by upselling, lame marketing, pretend access programs, and public official signup events.  The FCC extended the period, after our protests, but amazingly during that federal administration saw the program as a success and tried to convince other major providers to voluntarily offer cheap access.  Spoiler alert:  most didn’t then and don’t now.

Fast-forward to the FCC of today under the Biden Administration, what’s the progress?  The 2021 infrastructure bill included language instructing the agency to prevent “digital discrimination of access based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.”  Sounds good, but what does that really mean in practice?  The FCC has tried to respond to this instruction by issuing a new rule saying that they will examine the business practices of internet providers to see if there is any evidence of “digital discrimination.”  Some reports argue that this means that the big boys like Comcast, AT&T, and others would be liable if “their actions ‘differentially impact consumers’ access to broadband’ intentionally or not.”  The companies are predictably crying like stuck pigs.  What does it all really mean, though?  The FCC has swallowed their own ask by saying it will give companies a pass if they offer “genuine reasons of technical and economic feasibility as valid reasons” for their discrimination.

I hope I’m wrong, but this seems to be sound and fury signifying next to nothing.  The barrier to access for many is cost, pure and simple.  The FCC knows that, which is why it developed the $10 per month program in the first place.  The terrible irony is that the companies can make money even on that small sum.  They just can’t make barrels full.  If the FCC is going to allow “economic feasibility” to relieve any burden on the providers, most would likely argue that they it’s not worth it to them to have these small timer customers because they can’t make bank; the digital divide be damned.

We’re right back to the problem of net neutrality.  The internet needs to be regarded as a basic utility.  Access needs to be mandated, just like it is for water and lights, where there are also minimal charges for minimal usage.  The FCC has the legal authority.  They need to stop whispering to these companies and use the big stick.