Michael Copps, the Great Broadband Dissenter? Not Exactly

Nov 19, 2023

By Ted Hearn, Editor of Policyband

Washington, D.C., Nov 19, 2023 – Michael Copps, the Great Broadband Dissenter? For the full story, let’s roll the video tape.

A generation ago, the Federal Communications Commission, with Democrat Copps on board as a voting Commissioner, began deregulating broadband Internet Service Providers (ISPs), creating parity with AOL, Netscape and future edge giants like Google and Facebook.

It is true that Copps, a Ph.D historian who served at the agency from 2001 to 2011, was almost an automatic no vote when it came to deregulation. He even had trouble letting the dying print newspaper industry combine with TV and radio stations at the local level.

But when it came to broadband, Copps seems to be forgetting he amassed a mixed voting record that clearly departed from his normal stance in support of close government involvement in the affairs of the communications sector.

Copps shared his FCC record on broadband deregulation just the other day.

Writing in the Seattle Times on Nov. 17, Copps urged the public to support the FCC’s latest attempt to adopt Net Neutrality rules, which the experts refer to as common carrier regulation under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

Copps wants the FCC to reverse decades of predominantly light-touch oversight of hundreds of broadband ISPs, from national giants like Comcast and Charter to regional small fries like Shentel in Edinburg, Va., Great Plains Communications in Blair, Nebraska, and Ritter Communications in Jonesboro, Ark.

As part of his appeal to Seattle Times readers, Copps suggested that he was among those who fought broadband ISP deregulation all the way at the FCC.

“I was a commissioner at the FCC (in a dissenting minority) when it voted to reclassify broadband from being a telecommunications service to an “information service,” Copps wrote. (Information services are effectively unregulated by the FCC.)

A review of Copps’ voting record reveals that he did dissent once from broadband deregulation but later voted three times to concur with the decision to classify broadband as an information service.

In 2002, Copps voted against the majority to classify cable modem service as an information service.

Three years later – after the Supreme Court affirmed the FCC’s cable modem vote – Copps stopped issuing blanket dissents and injected some nuance into how he would come down on a broadband issue.

He concurred in applying the information service classification to digital subscriber line (DSL) service, the same to wireless broadband, and the same to broadband over power lines (BPL.)

Because broadband policy has become so partisan, people tend to forget that since the dawn of the Internet, the federal government has chosen to let the Internet market mature outside the purview of common carrier regulation, starting with the Clinton Administration.

The one exception was the FCC under Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler, an Obama appointee who imposed Title II on broadband ISPs. But Wheeler’s dramatic move was reversed two years later by Republican FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who received death threats for re-establishing the bipartisan status quo.

In other words, deregulation has been the norm, not the exception, over the revolutionary life of the Internet. Copps’ record shows that on occasion he would not go on record as opposed to broadband deregulation.

Why didn’t he share that with the readers of the Seattle Times?