The chair of the Federal Communication Commission Tom Wheeler has come out with what looks like a strong proposal in favor of net neutrality. This a really important development since the cable companies wanted to provide different levels of speed and service to different companies based on their ability to pay, rather than treating them all equally. In other words, the companies could provide the internet equivalent of a superhighway to (say) Netflix or Amazon while this blog gets shunted to a dirt road.
In a statement, Wheeler said:
Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone’s permission.
All of this can be accomplished while encouraging investment in broadband networks. To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks. For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling. Over the last 21 years, the wireless industry has invested almost $300 billion under similar rules, proving that modernized Title II regulation can encourage investment and competition.
I was very skeptical that this would happen, given president Obama’s past pandering to the telecommunication industry and the fact that Wheeler, his appointment to head the FCC had been a former lobbyists for the cable and wireless industry that strongly opposes net neutrality and had earlier hinted less than enthusiastic support for neutrality. It looks like my suspicions were misplaced and I own them both an apology. What may have helped sway Wheeler is the record-breaking number of public comments (4 million) that came in to the FCC, most of them demanding that net neutrality be maintained.
As Robert McMillan writes, we are not out of the woods yet.
What’s changing here is the way the FCC is classifying broadband internet. And the reason this is happening is because the courts have told the FCC that it simply can’t enforce net neutrality unless it does this. A year ago, Chairman Wheeler thought he could keep the courts happy with some regulatory jujutsu, but net neutrality lobbyists, the President, and millions of people told him otherwise.
So now Wheeler wants to turn back the clock and classify broadband the same way that DSL was classified back in the 1990s—as a regulated transmission service. When people talk about Title II, they’re really talking about a return to the way that internet service providers were originally regulated, under the Title II section of the 1934 Communications Act.
It’s true that Title II lets the FCC set rules for your internet service provider with a much firmer hand. That’s why the AT&Ts, Comcasts and Verizons of the world hate it. But the real question here is whether the FCC is going to actually use any of those powers to change much of anything. Judging from the FCC’s comments today, things could really change for wireless broadband users, but the agency isn’t really proposing to use Title II to do anything new in the wired broadband world.
Wheeler’s proposal will also have to go before the full FCC and you can be sure that the lobbyists are already on the case and will try to get Congress to overturn these proposal if the full FCC endorses it.