Courts Again Shoot Down FCC For Ignoring The Law, Making Up Stuff

As the FCC has rushed to kiss up to telecom giants like AT&T and Verizon, it has enjoyed a fairly casual relationship with both the truth and the law. The agency’s repeal of net neutrality, for example, was hinged largely on the idea that the modest rules devastated sector investment, something that data repeatedly disproved. Other Pai FCC policies have equally leaned on flimsy and manufactured data plucked directly from the mouths of sector lobbyists. And while this casual relationship to the truth may play well to Pai’s allies, just making things up doesn’t work quite as well when it comes time to defend these policies in the courts.

Case in point: earlier this year the FCC tried to take away a modest $25 per month broadband stipend for tribal residents (you know, for freedom or whatever), while also banning smaller companies from receiving broadband subsidies (giants like AT&T and Verizon surely appreciated that). But while Pai’s office claimed screwing tribal residents would somehow massively spur broadband deployment, the courts shot that ruling down for being “arbitrary and capricious,” noting that Pai’s FCC failed completely to follow the law or to justify its policy with actual facts.

Fast forward to last week, and the FCC found itself again slapped down for playing fast and loose with factual reality. This time, the courts shot down a sizeable chunk of a recent proposal that gutted most state and local authority over the placement of cellular towers (and so-called “small cells,” which are smaller antenna usually affixed to city street lights to extend wireless coverage). While the FCC claimed that doing so would speed up broadband deployment, a coalition of local leaders stated the plan was little more than a giveaway to giants like AT&T and Verizon, who don’t like having to deal with pesky things like environmental reviews for cell tower placement.

And (and tell me if you’re noticing a trend here), the courts were quick to point out (pdf) that the Pai FCC proposal (again) ignored the law and didn’t justify the plan with, you know, facts.

Here’s the court’s comment on the FCC’s attempt to exclude towns and cities from having a say where small cells are placed on city infrastructure, for example:

“The Commission failed to justify its determination that it is not in the public interest to require review of small cell deployments. We therefore grant the petitions in part because the Order’s deregulation of small cells is arbitrary and capricious. The Commission did not adequately address the harms of deregulation or justify its portrayal of those harms as negligible. In light of its mischaracterization of small cells’ footprint, the scale of the deployment it anticipates, the many expedients already in place for low-impact wireless construction, and the Commission’s decades-long history of carefully tailored review, the FCC’s characterization of the Order as consistent with its longstanding policy was not “logical and rational.”

That’s a polite way of saying the FCC didn’t support its arguments with evidence, or adhere to FCC policy or the law. The FCC keeps claiming that rubber stamping AT&T and Verizon’s every policy desire will somehow result in a massive boost in sector investment, but again, the data does not support those claims in any capacity:

“But FCC changes haven’t had the impact that Carr claims. Another FCC order last year eliminated $2 billion worth of local fees charged to carriers for deployment of small cells on public rights-of-way. Carr had claimed that this decision was needed to boost 5G construction, but Verizon said that the FCC decision did nothing to speed up its deployment. Cities are suing the FCC to overturn that order.”

Given the FCC keeps running into the same problem in the courts, all eyes are now on the ongoing lawsuit by 23 state AGs against the FCC for repealing net neutrality. A ruling in that case is expected any day now, and given the FCC’s tendency toward fantasy, many sector watchers are left feeling somewhat optimistic the repeal may not hold.
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