Thursday, October 26, 2017

This is not the people’s FCC

Being an amateur radio operator I pay a little more attention to the goings-on at the Federal Communications Commission than the average person might. So, when President Trump selected Buffalo-born Ajit Pai to chair the FCC back in January, I cringed. The former associate general counsel of Verizon is more aligned with larger broadcasters and communications companies than most of the other commissioners are.   

Ten months into watch, the FCC hasn’t failed to disappoint.

Between deregulation and corporate favoritism, the agency is on the path of allowing greater corporate control of public airwaves and the internet, squashing the ability of the little guys to compete and the average citizen to communicate.  

The latest example was last week’s 3-2 vote by the Commission to eliminate the Home Studio Rule.

Basically, that long-held regulation mandated that broadcasters have a studio in or near the city they are serving. The rule made sense: the FCC grants license to commercial broadcast enterprises with the expectation that the stations serve their home communities (with news, alerts, services, etc.) and act as economic engine (by running local advertisements and employing local workers).

By scratching that requirement, even more power will be given to the giant AM and FM conglomerates that are already dominating the airwaves. They can now fully remotely control and feed programming into transmitters, stifling local content, firing disc jockeys, emptying news rooms, and making all music and news sterile and similar from city to city. That bottom-line benefits gleaned from that will also allow them to further strangle the locally-owned-and-operated stations that actually do their duty to the community and have become an increasingly rare breed (broadcasters such as Lockport’s WLVL, Batavia’s WBTA and Wellsville’s WJQZ).

Even if you are not an avid radio listener (which many younger Americans aren’t, what with availability of digital players, streaming services and more) the FCC will hurt you by stifling the thing you love the most – your internet connection.

In a February installment of this column I wrote about the need to include the upgrade of rural internet access as a component of Trump’s infrastructure plan. As a critical piece of the modern economy, high-speed internet could drive economic development into communities that need a major shot in the arm (Rural America’s poverty rate is 18%). I noted at the time that only 55% of rural residents could achieve a connection of 25 megabits per second, which is the FCC’s current threshold for broadband.   

Well, the FCC recently announced that it plans to redefine what constitutes broadband.

The Commission wants to decrease that download speed to only 10 megabits per second, allowing internet and cellular service providers to seriously scale back the quality of their offerings to places like Upstate New York. Slower speeds would only bring pain and heartache to the farms, start-ups, and mom-and-pop businesses who need high-speed connections to bring their goods to market, attract customers and employ their neighbors.

As if that’s not bad enough, Pai has said on numerous occasions that he is in favor of rolling back net neutrality protections that were recognized by President Obama’s FCC in 2015. Those rules say that internet service providers cannot choose which data is sent more quickly and which sites get blocked or throttled backed based on which content providers pay a premium for.

If the big players had their way, companies like Netflix could pay Verizon a handsome sum to stream their services at a high rate of speed while dramatically slowing down (to make room on the information highway) the ability of other users to say, upload their photos, watch their online college courses, or download work documents. Whoever would pay the most would get the best, taking away the everyone-is-equal system that currently defines data transfer on the internet.

That’s a little unnerving, because the internet is quickly becoming our last means to access diversity of thought thanks to the abandonment of the Home Studio Rule and Pai’s proposal announced at a congressional hearing last week. There he said he’d like to, this November, throwaway media ownership rules launched in 1975 that prevented the same company from owning TV/radio stations and newspapers in a given media market.

If Pai has his way, a few media magnates could control the news you read, the news you hear, the news you watch and ultimately the news you download.     

That’s frightening.

It’s obvious that this is no longer the people’s FCC.

From the 30 October 2017 Greater Niagara Newspapers 

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