November 15, 2023 | 542 words | Politics, Economics
In a recent editorial the Wall Street Journal takes issue with a new rule the Federal Communication Commission is considering to prevent what is referred to as “digital discrimination.” This proposed action is a by-product of the 2021 infrastructure bill that included a directive for the FCC to monitor disparities in broadband access “based on income level, race, ethnicity, color, religion, or national origin.”
The esteemed WSJ sees such a statute as a simple case of “identity politics” run amok. Especially since by its own admission the FCC has found “little or no evidence” indicating “intentional discrimination by industry participants.” But to my way of thinking that is hardly the point, as the agency now seeks to hold broadband providers liable for any actions or “omissions” – intended or not – that result in a disparate impact.
As we all know, high-speed internet access has become a pre-requisite to full participation in the life of the nation, just as access to basic electrical service was in a previous generation. The Rural Electrification Act of 1936 addressed a glaring omission at the time: Americans who lived in outlying areas had limited access to electricity because private utility companies claimed it was not economically feasible to run power lines out to them. Back then those providers worried about recouping the upfront costs of installing the elaborate infrastructure needed to get things up and running.
Sound familiar? It is amusing (and more than a little annoying) to read the WSJ register the following objection to the FCC’s new rule: “Wireless carriers might also be prohibited from building out 5G networks in suburbs and city downtowns before inner cities and rural areas.” Yes, that is correct, Mr. Editorial Writer. The federal government is trying to prevent inner cities and rural areas from being left behind when it comes to something as vital as broadband access.
The short, punchy piece then gives readers a concise example of what I like to think of as WSJ-style unintended humor, by way of a primer on how the free market operates to elegantly solve all of society’s problems:
“Companies don’t have unlimited capital so they typically prioritize network upgrades in areas where they can earn a higher return on the investment, which they then use to finance improvements in lower-income and rural areas.”
Ah, if only the latter part of that statement were true, what a wonderful world this would be! The FCC would have no reason to draft a new policy rectifying disparate impacts, since the citizenry would already be enjoying “digital equity” from sea to shining sea.
But of course that is not the world we live in. Our world requires a regulatory body like the FCC to provide oversight of a burgeoning industry, so the vagaries of the for-profit marketplace do not inadvertently leave certain underrepresented and disadvantaged populations out of the digital mix.
Which, if you think about it, should not really bother the folks over at the WSJ. Since this proposed rule will merely codify what their editorial board believes is the established and oh-so socially-conscious standard operational procedure of the nation’s kindhearted broadband providers.
Even if some of the statutory language being employed by the FCC strikes the WSJ as identity politics run amok.
Robert J. Cavanaugh, Jr.