FCC chair comes out strong for net neutrality

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.

For more on this topic, you can listen to Joel Rose on NPR or read Kevin Drum.


  1. EnlightenmentLiberal says

    Disclaimer: I do not consider myself sufficiently well versed in issue to have a fully informed opinion, especially peering agreements. However, I am still a professional computer scientist (e.g. programmer), and so I’m better informed than most.

    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

    This is not net neutrality, or at least it’s not the net neutrality we should be fighting for.

    To use an analogy: Of course the US post office should charge by the parcel. Someone who sends 10 package should pay about 10 times more than someone who sends 1 package. Of course a company who sends a million parcels should be charged about 10x more than a company that sends a hundred thousand parcels. Of course the US post office may offer different guarantees of delivery, one night, two nights, standard, etc., and the US post office may have different charges for these different delivery guarantees. The US post office can even offer different services with different quality guarantees and assurance of delivery guarantees, such as requiring a receiver to sign.

    I see nothing wrong with allowing ISPs to charge by the bit on its own, and I see nothing wrong with allowing ISPs to offer different services with different latencies, different up-time guarantees, different throttling limits, different bandwidth cap limits.

    What the core of net neutrality should be IMHO is this:

    ISPs should be treated as a common carrier, and they may not make preferential deals for one customer over another. Any deal made to one customer must be made available to all customers, scaled to the customer’s needs. The cost, bandwidth, bandwidth caps, and throttling limits, must be proportionately scaled together. (Within certain limits. I expect that it’s reasonable to have different offers for residential areas vs commercial businesses. I’m undecided.)

    ISPs may not throttle, delay, or otherwise penalize or favor internal traffic based on traffic content. To the best extent possible, ISPs may not throttle, delay, or otherwise penalize or favor internal traffic based on source or destination (which is a partial consequence of treating ISPs as a common carrier). Imagine how outrageous it would be for the US post office to charge different rates for the same letter depending on whether it contains a resume, a love letter, a bill, etc. (Of course, the ISP may offer opt-in tools to the user which allow the user to favor or penalize his own traffic based on content, but this choice if offered shall not affect other customers.)

    Examples: You cannot give a special deal to company which you own, but refuse that same special deal to its competitor Netflix or Skype. No more purposeful penalizing of Netflix or Skype traffic because the ISP happens to own a competitor (or for any other reason). No more purposeful penalizing of bittorrent traffic.

    PS: Note that bandwidth caps and throttling arrangements for users who exceed bandwidth caps are totally ok. However, it is still not allowed to throttle traffic based on content. For example, some ISPs today will penalize users who go over their bandwidth cap by throttling bittorrent traffic only. That shall not be allowed.

    PPS: I fear that I am still too ignorant to comment fully. The problem is that this issue needs rules regarding how ISPs do peering agreements. From what little I know, that’s where a lot of the problem lies, and unfortunately I am too ignorant to give specific policy proposals.

  2. lorn says

    The main objection to this, once you dig through the crap, comes down to: ‘What is the point of getting rich if you can’t use your wealth to get special treatment?’

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