What AT&T-Mo tells us about transparency

Let the sunshine in.

Sometimes knowing you are observed is enough to make you behave well. That’s why the free press is so valued in the U.S, why we have the Freedom of Information Act and why 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 the agency 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 (s T) for more details on its economic models and newspapers and bloggers rushed to ascribe that request for more information to AT&T’s accidental release of information the week before. In the letter, which was subsequently redacted again, 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 for going beyond 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 spent 10 times that on buying T-Mobile.

So did the FCC listen to all the hoopla and realize it needed to ask for more information? God, I hope not. The FCC had all the information in the first place — it’s just 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 of course says that the FCC’s request for more information was just a natural occurrence that makes sense in the course of reviewing a complex and large merger.

And yet.

Do regulators really have their heads in the sand?

The whole incident shows pretty clearly how opaque the FCC’s merger review process is — and even how opaque many aspects of the agency are as it seeks to protect the bodies it regulates from sharing confidential information. We see it here, and 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.

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

But operators won on that issue, and the taxpayers spent a couple hundred million dollars for a broadband map that’s outdated and surpassed in some areas by similar 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 of the information 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 really looking out for citizens in this matter, and asking for information based on a filing that raised a few eyebrows inside the agency rather than responding to a backlash of public opinion after that filing was shared with everyone. Because people do behave better when they’re watched, and in the AT&T and T-Mobile merger, I think the more justifications shared with the public, the better. Because right now, the public doesn’t appear to be convinced.