Earlier this year, a federal appeals court eviscerated the FCC’s Open Internet (aka net neutrality) rule following a legal challenge by Verizon, effectively allowing ISPs to give priority access to their own content (or content from sites and services that pay for the privilege) while also blocking or throttling access to competing services and content. Net neutrality has been recuperating from that back-breaking defeat in a virtual underground prison, but is now preparing to scale the wall and return to the real world.
Reuters reports that FCC Chair Tom “Hot Wheels” Wheeler plans to begin circulating his proposal for the new neutrality rules to his colleagues tomorrow, and the five FCC commissioners are scheduled to vote on whether to move forward with the proposal on May 15.
That would be followed by a public comment period and any revisions that come out of those suggestions, so it’s still quite some time before any neutrality rules can be resurrected.
The largest ISPs, including Verizon, have all pinky-sweared that they will continue to abide by the old neutrality rules pending the finalizing of (and possible legal challenge to) the new rules, which makes one wonder why Verizon spent untold millions fighting the rules. Maybe Big V is just a free spirit who won’t be held down by the man… or something.
Only Comcast is legally obliged to follow the now-gutted guidelines; a stipulation the company agreed to while seeking approval of its merger with NBC Universal. However, Comcast’s obligation only lasts through 2018 (though we expect it will “volunteer” to continue that obligation if it helps grease the approval of its merger with Time Warner Cable.
No one knows if Wheeler’s proposal will be any different at its core than the former rules, as the appeals court didn’t take issue with the idea of enforced net neutrality; it just believed that, under the FCC’s outdated classification of ISPs, the commission didn’t have the proper authority to issue these rules.
Some believe that the FCC could simply reclassifying ISP as telecommunications infrastructure (as opposed to their current classification as content), effectively giving itself the authority to reinstate those the old rules.
In February, Wheeler issued a very vague outline of his plan, but even that didn’t say whether or not he intended to reclassify broadband.
One issue that will almost definitely not be dealt with in the new rules is the currently controversial topics of interconnectivity and paid peering. This issue has been brought to the fore by Netflix’s ongoing staring contests with various ISPs and its recent agreement to pay Comcast for more direct access to end-users.
The former net neutrality rules only dealt with an ISPs interactions with delivering content to the user. They prevented ISPs from actively slowing down or prioritizing content at whim. What they didn’t do was tell ISPs that they had to do everything possible to make sure that content providers’ data was getting to users without any speed bumps.
So when large numbers of users are simultaneously streaming Netflix — the biggest single source of downstream data in the U.S. — and connections begin to back up, ISPs have two choices: Open up more connections to ease the bottleneck or continue to let it build up and hope that Netflix pays them for a better connection.
To some, allowing these logjams to occur is a net neutrality issue — especially with regard to Netflix, as it provides a competing service to the pay-TV and on-demand content available from the cable companies that control most of the wired broadband in the country.
But earlier this month, Wheeler’s office made it clear that while the Chair believes interconnectivity is indeed an FCC issue, it is not a neutrality issue, and thus will not be part of his proposed rules.