The FCC's AT&T Review Is Hardly Transparent

Knowing that you are being observed is sometimes enough to make you behave well. That’s why the free press is so valued in the U.S., where we have the Freedom of Information Act and several states have sunshine laws that allow citizens and the press to hold officials accountable. So there’s a tendency to trumpet the unintentional exposure of information in AT&T‘s recent filings with the FCC as the reason the agency is taking a closer look at figures provided by the nation’s No. 2 carrier about its claims. The agency also restarted the so-called shot clock on Friday, which means it will try to have a decision in the next 97 days. (As of Friday, it’s on day 83 of a 180-day time frame).

Earlier this week, the FCC asked AT&T for further details on its economic models. Newspapers and bloggers rushed to ascribe the request for more information to AT&T’s accidental release of information the week before. In that letter, which was subsequently redacted further, AT&T had laid out the economic rationale for a decision to avoid providing LTE for 97 percent of the country, citing a $3.8 billion price tag to surpass the 80 percent mark. The filing got a flurry of attention as many rightly wondered why AT&T was so reluctant to spend $3.8 billion on a build out when it was willing to spend 10 times as much to buy T-Mobile.

So did the FCC listen to all the hoopla and realize it needed to ask for more information? I hope not. The FCC already had all the information—it’s merely the rest of us who weren’t privy to AT&T’s machinations around building out an LTE network to rural areas. And if the FCC only this week realized that was an issue, then we have bigger problems. AT&T says the FCC’s request for more information was just a natural occurrence that makes sense in the course of reviewing a big, complex merger.

The incident shows pretty clearly how opaque the FCC’s merger review process is—and even how opaque the agency can be in seeking to protect the bodies it regulates from sharing confidential information. We see it here. It’s also one of the reasons the National Broadband Map efforts were such an expensive boondoggle and why the results were so disappointing. The agencies involved caved on getting broadband providers to detail where they offer service at the address level.

Why Did They Cover Up Broadband Data?

ISPs felt that providing such detailed information would show their competitors where they are present, although I still wonder if it would instead have showed Americans and Congress exactly how lame some people’s broadband service is. It would have also showed the location of broadband black holes in which people can’t manage to get a high-speed connection. Given that ISPs already know where broadband access is provided in their service areas—and the public interest is clearly served by access to better information—this lack of transparency by the FCC and the National Telecommunications & Information Administration seems to protect the regulated industries, not citizens.

The operators won on that issue and the taxpayers spent a couple hundred million dollars for a broadband map that’s outdated, even surpassed in some areas by crowd-sourced efforts that cost far less. So perhaps instead of just looking at the FCC’s request for more data as a “gotcha” for AT&T it’s time to look at the FCC’s request for more data and figure out exactly what’s in AT&T’s response and whether or not it really needs to be redacted. I’m not saying that all the information that is shared belongs in the public eye, but in a transaction this big, with huge repercussions for consumers, businesses, and the growing mobile industry, the agencies involved should err on the side of transparency.

Then we’d know if the FCC is looking out for citizens in this matter. Is it asking for information based on a filing that raised a few eyebrows inside the agency, or is it responding to a backlash of public opinion after that filing was shared with everyone? Because people do behave better when they’re watched, I think the more justifications shared with the public regarding the AT&T merger with T-Mobile, the better. Right now, the public doesn’t appear to be persuaded that it’s a good deal.

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