House Attacks Net Neutrality, Cable Box Reform With Sneaky Budget Rider

As we’ve noted a few times, there’s really only two ways the telecom sector can successfully destroy U.S. net neutrality rules. Broadband providers could prevail on part or all of their multi-headed lawsuit against the FCC, a decision on which is expected any day now. Or the rules could be dismantled by the next President, who could repopulate the FCC with the usual assortment of revolving-door sector sycophants, reverting the agency back to its more consistent, historical role as a dumbly nodding enabler of broadband sector dysfunction.

Every other attempt to kill the rules is just politicians barking loudly for their campaign contribution dinners — though that’s not to say the barking doesn’t get very loud from time to time.

The latest example is the House Appropriations Committee’s 29-17 vote to approve an FCC appropriations bill (pdf), part of a larger Financial Services Bill determining the 2017 budgets for multiple agencies. The bill was passed last week with amendment language intended to hobble the FCC’s net neutrality rules — and its quest to bring competition to the cable set top box. More specifically, the bill prohibits the FCC from enforcing its net neutrality rules until the ongoing court case is settled. But it also would relegate the FCC’s attempt to bring competition to the cable box to committee purgatory.

This attempt to force the FCC’s cable box reform plan into a “study” that never ends — despite an already scheduled extensive public comment period — has been a constant drum beat among telecom lobbyists, who’ve masterfully enjoyed having a laundry list of Senators parrot their claims that cable set top box reform will somehow hurt consumer privacy, spike piracy rates, and even harm minorities. The real reason for the sector’s opposition is the $21 billion in captive annual set top rental fees the cable sector enjoys, and the fact that more set top box competition means better, cheaper hardware that will highlight streaming alternatives to legacy television (the horror).

As is usually the case, politicians supporting the hamstringing of the FCC profess they’re wasting taxpayer money and legislative time not because they’re paid allies of the telecom duopolists, but because they’re just breathlessly worried about the health of the nation. For example, Chairman of the Financial Services and General Government Appropriations Subcommittee, Florida Representative Ander Crenshaw, issued a statement making it abundantly clear he’s not happy with a regulator actually doing its job:

“In addition, this Committee has strong concerns that the FCC seems to be prolonging their pattern of regulatory overreach with its recent set-top box proposal. And so, we include language that requires the FCC to stop and study this controversial rule before they can move any further. The telecommunications industry is more competitive than ever. And yet, the Commission has been more active than ever in trying to exert regulatory control over market innovation. To return the FCC’s focus towards mission critical work and away from politically charged rule makings, the bill requires the FCC to do less with less.”

And by “mission critical work” Crenshaw means joining him in pretending that the broadband sector is actually competitive, and that forcing consumers to pay thousands of dollars for sub-standard, closed cable hardware is the pinnacle of innovation. Like past efforts of this type, the rider language won’t make it very far, but it’s always entertaining to see folks like Crenshaw dressing up cronyism as a noble assault on the very dysfunction he covertly enables.

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