Monday, March 2, 2015

FCC Stands Up for Net Neutrality

Part 3 in the RapidGroove Net Neutrality Series

Graphic credit:
Back in March 2014 Net Neutrality was discussed in two RapidGroove blog posts (“Net Neutrality as Fighting Words and “Net Neutrality, Part 2). At the time, I wrote that if the situation continued to develop, there might be a third post in the future. A year later, that time has come.

To review, Net Neutrality is the idea that all Internet traffic of a given type should have equal footing when moving through the network, without some traffic being highly prioritized and other traffic being blocked or slowed down. For example, an ISP would not be permitted to artificially slow down the traffic of one streaming video service in order to make another streaming video service (such as one that it operates or has financial interest in) appear to perform better to their broadband service subscribers.

(Disclaimer: From here on, I'm wading into telecom law and policy that I'm really not qualified to interpret. But this is a blog, and the topic is of real interest to me, so I'll carry on with my best understanding. And I'll gladly accept corrections from those who know better!)

Consumer advocates and Internet services companies such as Netflix and Google have generally been supporters of strong Net Neutrality, while major carriers and broadband providers like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are interested in retaining more control. The latter group of companies is not necessarily against an Open Internet, but has been concerned about burdensome regulation and possible revenue impact. They have been particularly opposed to one of the measures voted upon last week – that broadband Internet Service Providers would be subject to Title II of the Communications Act as “Common Carriers.”

Over the past year, a great deal of public attention has been paid to what really is a complex regulatory issue, thanks in part to high profile treatment by the likes of JohnOliver on his HBO show “Last Week Tonight” and significant attention fromSenator Al Franken of Minnesota. Recently, President Barak Obama has openly showedsupport for Net Neutrality.

This attention seems to have fueled a tidal wave of public comments to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) during 2014. So many comments were submitted that FCC Chairman Wheeler needed to extend the comment period and the timeframe for announcing proposed rules. By early 2015 it began to become clear that Chairman Wheeler would seek to provide the “strongest legal foundation for the Open Internet rules” based upon Title II of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

FCC on Title II

As the February 26th vote approached, the FCC described a set of “bright line rules” that Title II would enable. For example, the FCC would prohibit network traffic blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization while still allowing control by ISPs primarily intended for network management.

Among the additional elements of Title II that the FCC proposes to apply are protections of consumer privacy and fair access to poles and conduits for broadband ISPs.

The FCC also promises some specific restraint in order to reassure broadband ISPs. The FCC would achieve this restraint through an established process called “forbearance” in which the FCC makes known the areas in which it would not regulate. Here, the FCC is prepared to reassure broadband ISPs that the FCC will not become heavily involved in rate setting or rate approvals or “other forms of utility regulation” for broadband ISPs.

FCC on Section 706

Section 706 requires the FCC to determine whether high-speed broadband access to the Internet is being made available to all Americans in a “timely fashion.” If not, according to section 706, the FCC is responsible for taking action to "accelerate deployment of such capability by removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition in the telecommunications market.”

The FCC pursued this issue in the February 26th vote by intervening in two states (Tennessee and North Carolina) that had limited the expansion and availability of Internet access operated by cities. The FCC acted to remove those limits, allowing the expansion of city operated Internet access. If this action is not overturned when challenged later this year, the way may be cleared for more city-operated broadband Internet access rollouts, which could increase the availability of high-speed broadband access to the Internet in some geographic regions and add to the choices available to consumers in others. Many (myself included) believe that increased competition is really the heart of the matter.
(once again, a reminder that I am not a lawyer and I don't play one on the Internet)

What next?

It’s widely anticipated that once the rules reach final adoption stage later this year, Comcast, Verizon and AT&T will file legal challenges. It could be quite some time before any impacts of last week’s votes are seen in action by consumers.

What’s your opinion? Will the FCC’s recent moves help fuel competition for consumer business and promote a healthy, competitive space for future network services? Please leave a comment and join the discussion.

Related Reading:

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  1. Initially, I considered last Thursday's vote a victory for the consumer. However, after watching Anthony Cumia's webcast on Thursday evening, I'm not so sure now. While he didn't say he's against it, he did make a very strong case for being apprehensive.
    I encourage you to check out this clip of him discussing it. He makes some very valid points, and makes it quite entertaining in the process.
    This link should start at the relevant part, but if not, it starts just after 34 minutes in and goes until just after the 47 minute mark.

    1. Thanks for the pointer. Cumia seems to mistrust big government and voluminous laws and regulations and particularly those regulatory documents that have not been made fully public yet. Can't blame him. I'm not a fan of heavy regulation, and I believe in transparency. But I'm also not a fan of regulatory vacuums when those vacuums have created an anti-competitive climate. I'm inclined to believe that the Internet and its users and services do not benefit from too much control by a very small number of very large companies that are getting larger by the month through acquisitions. I favor light-touch regulations to promote competition.

    2. As for Cumia's distrust of the FCC, keep in mind that he speaks from first-hand experience, having worked 20 years in radio.
      I agree with you, that on the surface, net neutrality is better for us. But like I said, Cumia's argument does make me wonder what is in those 332 pages. As he pointed out, that seems like a lot of content for something that seems like it should be pretty cut and dry.
      Simply put, I am for the FCC's decision, as long as there's no "catch." :-)