Today, the Federal Communications Commission adopted an order intended to lower prison payphone phone calling rates. Commissioner Ajit Pai dissented over concerns of the legality, administrability and unintended consequences of the Order’s rate-of-return price controls. The following statement can be attributed to TechFreedom President Berin Szoka:
If justice delayed is justice denied, the FCC has once again denied justice to the millions of Americans and their families who pay far too much for prison payphone calls. The FCC’s elaborate system of price controls was not among the ideas on which the FCC sought comment last December, nor is it supported by the record. Thus, today’s long-overdue order will very likely be struck down in court — and the Commission will have wasted nine years sitting on Martha Wright’s 2003 payphone justice petition, nine months proposing an illegal solution, and who-knows-how-long litigating about it — only to wind up right back where we started, with payphone operators paying up to two-thirds of their revenue in kickbacks to state prisons, in exchange for the monopoly privilege of gouging a truly captive audience.
It didn’t have to be this way. The FCC could have solved this problem back in 2003 by requiring prisons to allow competition and banning kickbacks — precisely what Martha Wright requested. This simple reform would have brought the fruits of competition to prisoners: not only lower prices but also better service and innovative services like texting and video. Or, the FCC could have imposed simple, reasonable rate caps — precisely what the FCC’s Notice proposed in December, and what Wright requested in an alternative petition filed back in 2007.
Even if today’s Order ultimately survives legal challenge, imposing arbitrarily low rates on smaller facilities with high costs will either cut off service completely or undermine vital security measures.
This is just the latest example of the FCC’s M.O. of “Ready, Fire, Aim.” The FCC consistently dawdles, then suddenly works itself up into a rush to regulate in ways that are either illegal or unwise — and usually both. Once again, good intentions, the desire to make headlines, disregard for basic principles of legal process, and a deep-seated ideological preference for returning to rate-of-return price controls, have triumphed over common sense, due process and, sadly, actually helping anyone.