Sen. Fischer: Small Operators Make Big Difference

Sen. Deb Fischer (R-Neb.) gave a spirited defense of the role of small, rural and independent cable operators in far-flung communities and warned that new government rules could crush these crucial lifelines and drive away investment.

Fischer was speaking Monday at The Independent Show in Orlando, a co-production of the American Cable Association and the National Cable Television Cooperative, whose members are the smaller and midsized operators she was defending.

The rural rancher and Senate Commerce Committee member, born and raised in Nebraska, reminded the crowd of how critical it was to reach those rural markets, where upgrades and innovations can be few and far between.

"Weather alone makes connections imperative," she suggested. “For rural Nebraskans, broadband access is not just about watching Game of Thrones, it’s about staying safe – it’s about connecting with family, and it’s also about growing our economy."

In a variant on the oft-heard Capitol Hill thanks to local TV stations for being weather alert "first responders," Fischer said that in Nebraska, where "winter is always coming," residents are often first alerted to a winter storm "via their broadband network" or learn about a tornado via text.

She noted that 53% of rural Americans, or about 22 million, lack broadband access as defined by the FCC. “How many potential entrepreneurs and innovators are we excluding in that number?” she asked. “We cannot leave them behind.”  She pointed out that many of the companies nationwide serving these communities, which usually cost more to wire, are themselves smaller companies. She praised the companies in the crowd, which gave the Senator thundering approval.

She pressed for less government restrictions for small operators. Fischer said she is concerned that telecom overregulation will be a disincentive to the infrastructure investment needed to extend broadband lifelines—and she came ready with some examples.

Fischer is no fan of the FCC's neutrality rules. She teamed up with Republican FCC commissioner Ajit Pai to take aim at the rules last year in an op ed in the Omaha World-Herald.

Fischer cited those rules, and the reclassification of internet access as a Title II common carrier, as just the kind of innovation-impairing regulatory uncertainty she was talking about, and the kind of investment killer she said has been documented by the Progressive Policy Institute.

Fischer was clearly among friends. She was also among a group of senators who recently asked FCC chairman Tom Wheeler to further study the impact of its set-top box proposal on smaller pay-TV providers before proceeding to vote on a final order.

Fischer reminded her audience about the letter she sent to Wheeler. She said those rules were "a solution in search of a problem" and that, thanks to technological advances driven by marketplace competition, people can already view most of the content they want. "Requiring carriers to 'unlock their content service is not going to 'break open' the so-called monopolies," she said. "Competition already exists." What it will do, she said, is create more potential problems, particularly for smaller providers for whom it would be costly to replace boxes and comply with rules.

The FCC has proposed new broadband privacy rules, stemming from its Title II reclassification.

Fischer said smaller operators will have a hard time complying with those rules. She was clearly preaching to the choir given ACA's calls for waivers for smaller operators. "The FCC has presented no evidence, none, to show why its proposed approach would be better for consumers," she said, referring to the fact that the Federal Trade Commission has previously regulated broadband privacy through enforcement of voluntary privacy policies, rather than the bright-line rules the FCC is proposing. The FCC is proposing that ISPs get their subs' permission before sharing information with third parties—edge providers, who also collect and share online info, have no similar requirement.

Again, she said, smaller operators will have to shoulder compliance costs, which she said would, without a doubt, wind up being worse for consumers if those operators decide it is too expensive to continue providing those broadband services. The risk of that, ACA has told the FCC, is very real unless the commission provides them some relief.