Under Trump-appointee Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) has continued a program to track whether major companies like AT&T, Comcast, Spectrum, and Verizon are providing their promised internet speeds, but has failed to publish any of its findings—concealment that has raised alarm among tech reporters and former agency officials.
"The only reason I can think of is that the data doesn't promote the chairman's narrative that broadband industry investment and performance allegedly suffered when it was subject to net neutrality rules grounded in Title II of the Communications Act."
—Gigi Sohn, former FCC lawyer
"The only reason I can think of is that the data doesn't promote the chairman's narrative that broadband industry investment and performance allegedly suffered when it was subject to net neutrality rules grounded in Title II of the Communications Act," former agency lawyer and adviser Gigi Sohn told Motherboard, referencing Pai's defense of a party-line vote that repealed the rules last year.
As Ars Technica pointed out Monday, from when the FCC launched the Measuring Broadband America program in 2011 until 2016, the agency monitored the in-house internet of thousands of customers across the country and released annual reports comparing actual speeds to those advertised by internet service providers (ISPs).
However, since Pai—an ex-lobbyist who worked for Verizon—became FCC chairman nearly two years ago and started building a reputation for prioritizing industry interests over the common good, the agency not only has failed to release a report, it also allegedly has dodged Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests about the program's status or recent findings.
— FOIA // FEED (@FOIAFeed) November 20, 2018
Detailing the run-around that the FCC has given Ars Technica in its quest for more information, the outlet reported that the agency failed to meet its self-imposed, repeatedly-delayed deadline of Oct. 25—at which point an FCC staffer claimed via email that "at this time, we do not know how long this process will take and cannot give you a due date."
Meanwhile, Alex Salter, the chief executive of SamKnows, the company the FCC uses to take broadband measurements, confirmed that the program still exists, monitoring speeds in 6,000 to 10,000 American households, and "there's no particular reason that [he] could identify" for why a report hasn't been released under the Trump administration.
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Salter added that there is a report currently awaiting FCC approval, which could be released next month—but, he said, "obviously we don't control that because it has to go through a whole series of approvals."
Former FCC official Blair Levin, who oversaw development of the National Broadband Plan, told Ars Technica, "I don't want to speculate on why the FCC has not produced the data, as I can think of many potential reasons and don't know enough to say what is most likely to be true," but many possible motivators are political.
"There is always a danger that a government agency moves forward with a preset agenda and uses cherry-picked data to try to justify the decision," Levin noted. "The fact that the FCC is not reporting, on a regular basis, the data is evidence—not conclusive but evidence nonetheless—that the FCC could be moving away from being a data-driven expert agency."
Such a move could have significant consequences for consumers, Sohn warned. "Without this information, consumers who are lucky enough to have a choice of broadband providers won't be able to make informed decisions about which broadband provider to choose," she said. "This information is also vital for policy makers seeking to enforce federal and state laws protecting consumers from unfair and deceptive trade practices."
As Lauren Goode, a senior writer at Wired, concluded on Twitter, "This is infuriating."
This is infuriating.
— Lauren Goode (@LaurenGoode) November 20, 2018