In spite of the fact that everyone — from Google to 4Chan, from the ACLU to the Harry Potter Alliance — has asked FCC Chair Tom Wheeler to rethink his addle-brained proposal for useless net neutrality, it continues to inch closer to reality, and with the support of lawmakers who are signing their names to a letter drafted by the cable industry that pays them well.
Defending The Offenders
When it was first revealed that Wheeler’s net neutrality proposal included an allowance for “fast lanes” — the ability for Internet service providers to charge content companies extra for prioritized access to the end user — the cable and telecom industry remained relatively quiet; mostly because Wheeler was busying himself by making the industry’s argument.
Why should AT&T, Verizon, et al, need to respond to neutrality critics when the head of the FCC — a former front man for both the cable and telecom industries — was more than willing to be their mouthpiece?
Scared Into Action
Earlier this week, it was revealed that Wheeler, worried that even his fellow FCC commissioners would not support his proposal as originally drafted, had softened his stance slightly by adding language to the draft seeking public comment on both an outright ban of fast lanes, and on the idea of reclassifying broadband as a public utility — a step that most agree would cement the FCC’s authority to enforce net neutrality.
Now that Wheeler has opened that door, a former Congressman turned cable/telecom industry shill has begun circulating a letter on behalf of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association to legislators on Capitol Hill, asking them to tell the FCC that they believe (read: They were told) that reclassifying broadband would be a baaaaddd, baadddd thing.
From the letter:
In the years that broadband service has been subjected to relatively little regulation, investment and deployment have flourished and broadband competition has increased, all to the benefit of consumers and the American economy…
I am concerned that opening the door to subjecting broadband service to a wide array of regulatory burdens and restrictions, including imposing Title II, might halt this progress. I respectfully urge you to consider the effect that regressing to a Title II approach might have on private companies’ ability to attract capital and their continued incentives to invest and innovate, as well as the potentially negative impact on job creation that might result from any reduction in funding or investment.
The letter provides no hypothetical examples of how companies could be harmed; does not even speculate what these vague “burdens and restrictions” might be. It just offers the generic specter of harm to companies’ “ability to attract capital” and “invest and innovate.” Oh, not to mention the negative impact on the “job creation” that huge telecoms are famous for.
So let’s deal with what little we’ve been given by the NCTA (a group for which Wheeler has previously been President)…
Which Burdens & Restrictions?
Given that the telecom industry should know better than any other sector the possible burdens and restrictions that might come from reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service — the same designation used for telephone networks — you’d expect that the NCTA letter would include at least one example of how FCC regulations have crippled or impinged upon telecom services in the past.
The only regulation being sought by net neutrality supporters that the telecom and cable providers care about is the prohibition on fast lanes. The nation’s ISPs have been living with this oh-so-heavy burden since 2010. The major ISPs are all continuing to abide by the 2010 restrictions even though they don’t currently have to (except Comcast, which is legally obliged to stick with those old rules for another four years).
Someone Should Have Asked Comcast
Since we’re talking about Comcast, let’s stay with the nation’s largest ISP for a moment. In making the case for its pending merger with Time Warner Cable, Comcast claims that it will bring faster and improved Internet to subscribers, and that acquired Time Warner Cable Internet customers will also have the benefit of the 2010 neutrality rules.
So if Comcast can continue to grow and improve its service while not only abiding by the older, stricter neutrality rules, but also while imposing those restrictions on 10 million or so additional accounts, how can NCTA argue that net neutrality would harm innovation?
Collecting Tolls For Roads You Didn’t Build
While the Verizons and Comcasts of the world like to pretend that they do all of the heavy lifting in bringing data to your home, the truth is often very different. In most cases, an ISP is only responsible for carrying data the “last mile” to the end-user. There are numerous bandwidth providers who do much of the long-distance hauling of data.
Much of the innovation and investment that the NCTA claims will be harmed by reclassification has actually been done by companies much further up the stream than your ISP. Verizon is not responsible for figuring out to compress and stream HD Netflix videos to millions of customers at once. AT&T did not create the smartphones or tablets its subscribers use. Comcast is not running multiplayer video game servers that allow players from around the world to square off in real time. ISPs are passive (and increasingly passive-aggressive) conduits through which this data is supposed to travel as efficiently as possible and with no regard for its source.
Interestingly enough, the companies that are responsible for many of the biggest and most innovative developments in online technology have written the FCC asking the commission to rethink Wheeler’s proposal.
And speaking of investment, a large number of venture capitalists — the very people who put their money on the line for these new services and technologies — have also come out against the draft.
Allowing ISPs to decide which content gets to users the fastest — and making this decision based not on the most efficient way to deliver data, but solely on who pays the most — is like handing over highway exit ramps to a private toll-taking company and telling it to charge whatever it wants to drivers looking to get on or off the Interstate.
Recognizing The Reality Of Broadband
There was a time, not very long ago, that Internet access was viewed as a luxury. The same was once true for running water, sewage, heat, electricity, and telephone landline service. But as use of each of these services evolved into essential utilities, regulators recognized that standards were needed to try to ensure equitable and safe access.
Reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service isn’t simply about working out a way to create net neutrality rules that stick; it’s about recognizing the reality that broadband is an integral and essential utility relied upon by both individual citizens and the companies they patronize and for whom they work.