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from the you’re-not-helping dept

For the last few years, broadband customers have complained that Frontier Communications, the nation’s third-biggest telco, has been charging its customers a $10 per month rental fee for modems they already purchased and own. Normally, you’re supposed to be able to buy your own modem instead of paying your ISP a rental fee upwards of $10 per month. To nab some extra dough from captive customers, Frontier basically decided to charge its customers a rental fee anyway, giving them a polite, though giant, middle finger when they complained.

And because the Trump FCC is a glorified rubber stamp for the industry’s biggest players, consumers who complained to the agency received little more than a glassy eyed stare.

Fast forward to last January when the problem was fixed, shockingly enough, by the US Congress. A massive US government spending bill approved by Congress and signed by President Trump (who I’d all but guarantee didn’t understand the scope of what he was signing) not only included some updates to the Communications Act cracking down slightly on bullshit cable TV fees, but also included a little noticed provision that formally bans the nonsense Frontier has been engaged in.

Here’s the wrinkle. While that law was supposed to take effect this month, a clause included in the measure gave the FCC the right to delay the restriction by six months. So that’s precisely what the FCC did. And the FCC justified the move by claiming that the pandemic simply made it too onerous for a big ISP to stop ripping people off:

“As the nation tackles the COVID-19 pandemic, multichannel video programming distributors (MVPDs) and providers of fixed broadband Internet access service are among the entities that are integral to the Commission’s ongoing, nationwide effort to keep Americans informed and connected during this national emergency. So that these service providers may focus their resources on this critical effort, we provide appropriate flexibility for MVPDs and providers of fixed broadband Internet access service to fulfill their obligations under the Television Viewer Protection Act of 2019 (TVPA)… we find that good cause exists for granting a blanket extension of section 642’s effective date until December 20, 2020.”

Several things here. One, keep in mind this FCC did absolutely nothing for nearly two years as a major telecom monopoly charged users $10 for absolutely nothing. And the very first time they take substantive action on the issue, it involves delaying implementation of a law that actually helps. This is, for those playing along at home, the kind of “hands off approach” to regulation that the FCC loves to (falsely) claim spurs investment and innovation. In reality, finding creative new ways to rip off captive customers is as innovative as US telecom tends to get.

Two, there’s really nothing about a pandemic that would make it difficult to stop charging people bullshit fees. Three, the FCC’s effort to “keep people connected” during this crisis consists of an entirely voluntary, temporary pledge to not kick users offline during the pandemic. It’s a pledge many ISPs are simply ignoring, knowing full well the FCC just gutted much of its authority over telecom as part of the net neutrality repeal.

Keep in mind the only reason anybody is doing anything about this is thanks to a law that required a miracle to pass. More often than not, a campaign cash slathered Congress blocks such legislative fixes unless they’re buried in broader legislation (which was the case here). And because the FCC just neutered its authority over telecom at lobbyist behest, there’s a universe of issues just like this the FCC can’t and won’t address. Keep in mind the Trump FCC has even been trying for several years to ban states from protecting consumers’ privacy (again at telecom industry behest). And because there’s little to no competition in many broadband markets, there’s no “market solution” here either. Surely you can see the problem forming here?

As of now, this particular law cracking down on bogus cable fees and bullshit surcharges won’t take effect until December. Even then, you’d need this FCC to actually enforce it, and there’s been absolutely zero indication so far this agency is capable of standing up to telecom monopolies.

Filed Under: fcc, modems, rental fees

Categories: Technology