Is Broadband Regulation Dead?

By Doug Dawson, Apr 5, 2023 | Original Pots and Pans article here.

I ask this question after Gigi Sohn recently withdrew her name from consideration as an FCC Commissioner. It’s been obvious for a long time that the Senate was never going to approve her nomination. Some Senators tried to blame their reluctance to approve on Sohn’s history as an advocate for the public over big corporations.

But the objections to Sohn were all the kinds of smokescreens that politicians use to not admit the real reason they opposed the nomination. Gigi Sohn is not going to be the next Commissioner because she is in favor of regulating broadband and the public airwaves. The big ISPs and the large broadcasting companies (some companies which are both) have been lobbying hard against the Sohn nomination since it was first announced. These giant corporations don’t want a third Democratic Commissioner who is pro-regulation.

In the past, the party that held the White House was able to nominate regulators to the FCC and other regulatory agencies that reflected the philosophies of their political party. That’s been a given in Washington DC, and agencies like the FCC have bounced back and forth between different concepts of what it means to regulate according to which party controlled the White House.

But I think the failure to approve Sohn breaks the historical convention that lets the political party in power decide who to add as regulators. I predict this will not end with this failed nomination. Unless the Senate gets a larger majority for one of the parties, I have a hard time seeing any Senate that is going to approve a fifth FCC Commissioner. If Republicans win the next presidential race, their nominee for the fifth Commissioner slot will also likely have no chance of getting approved.

The primary reason for this is that votes for an FCC Commissioner are no longer purely along party lines. The large ISPs and broadcasters make huge contributions to Senators for the very purpose of influencing this kind of issue. That’s not to say that there will never be a fifth Commissioner, but rejecting this nomination means it’s going to be a lot harder in the future to seat FCC Commissioners who embrace the position of the political party in power, like was done by Ajit Pai and likely would have been done by Gigi Sohn.

I think we’re now seeing the textbook example of regulatory capture. That’s an economic principle that describes a situation where regulatory agencies are dominated by the industries they are supposed to be regulating. Economic theory says that it’s necessary to regulate any industry where a handful of large players control the market. Good regulation is not opposed to the large corporations being regulated but should strike a balance between what’s good for the industry and what’s good for the public. In a perfectly regulated industry, both the industry and the public should be miffed at regulators for not fully supporting their issues.

The concept of regulatory capture was proposed in the 1970s by George Stigler, a Nobel prize-winning economist. He outlined the characteristics of regulatory capture that describes the broadband industry to a tee.

Regulated industries devote a large budget to influence regulators at the federal, state, and local levels. It’s typical that citizens don’t have the wherewithal to effectively lobby the public’s side of issues.
Regulators tend to come from the regulated industry, and they tend to take advantage of the revolving door to return to industry at the end of their stint as a regulator.

In the extreme cases of regulatory capture, the incumbents are deregulated from any onerous regulations while new market entrants must jump through high hoops.

The FCC is a textbook example of a captured regulator. The FCC under Ajit Pai went so far as to deregulate broadband and to wash the FCC’s hands of broadband as much as possible by theoretically passing the little remaining regulation to the FTC. It’s hard to imagine an FCC more under the sway of the broadband industry than the last one.

There is no real fix for regulatory capture other than a loud public outcry to bring back strong regulation. But that’s not going to happen as long as regulatory capture is so complete that it’s impossible to seat a fifth Commissioner.