AT&T CEO: We Can Invest In Our Company Despite Net Neutrality Because It’ll Lose In Court Anyway

All of the big ISPs hate the FCCs new net neutrality rule. They’ve been protesting the agency’s decision since before it was even made. And yet the top executives at the cable ISPs have all by now explained why net neutrality is not actually a threat to their businesses, and this week was AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson’s turn.

AT&T spent the duration of the net neutrality fight trying their hardest to make “regulation stifles innovation” a self-fulfilling prophecy. On the heels of the White House’s call for the FCC to use Title II for net neutrality, last year, AT&T promptly issued a threat basically to take their ball and go home. Just a few months after announcing they might do a huge expansion of their gigabit fiber offerings, AT&T did an about-face, claiming that the plans were on hold due to the potential of strong net neutrality regulation.

At the time, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson told investors, “We can’t go out and invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities not knowing under what rules those investments will be governed.”

Of course, the ISPs did not get their way, back in February, and the FCC vote to adopt the new rule. And in passing their regulation, the commission called everyone’s “this will stop us from investing” bluff.

So how is AT&T’s Stephenson now justifying his company’s continued well-being and failure to collapse into a pile of bankrupt ashes?

“The exact comment I made,” he said in an interview with CNBC this week, “was, we’re going to put a pause on our new broadband deployment plans until we see how these rules came out. We have seen how the rules came out.”

And yes, there is a truth to that: we have all now seen the new rule. But AT&T hates that new rule. They expressed disappointment in the FCC for actually regulating. They have been warming up their legal challenges since before the rule was even adopted. And they are now among the many parties filing the giant slate of lawsuits against the FCC to halt that rule.

So why is supposedly disastrous new regulatory environment suddenly not so bad for AT&T? Because they don’t expect it to last.

“As we read those rules, we do believe they’re subject to modification by the courts and remand by the courts to the FCC,” said Stephenson, which translated from the legalese to the English means they expect the courts to toss the rule back to the FCC for major edits, or to invalidate it entirely.

“Based on our reading of the Title II order that came out, we’re operating and we’re investing under the scenario that these rules will probably be changed,” Stephenson said. “We don’t think this rulemaking is sustainable from a legal standpoint, but the courts will decide that.”

And if the lawsuits fail, well, there’s always Capitol Hill. “Irrespective,” continued Stephenson, “the Congress seems inclined to make a change here so we really think these rules will be modified to a format that will be conducive to investment in the long haul.”

However, should Congress not fall into line, Stephenson has a plan C: the White House changing hands in the 2016 election, and the FCC’s current 3-2 party split swapping majorities. “Title II was put in place with a 3-2 vote of this commission. Title II could be changed by a 3-2 vote from another commission,” said Stephenson. “There’s just a lot of moving parts here. We think it’s unlikely the rules will stay in place like they are in the long term.”

Of Stephenson’s A, B, and C plans, the courts are probably the most likely. A Congressional solution has supporters but not enough of them, and also faces strong opposition. And as for the FCC changing its tune later? As we’ve described before, it’s possible that they could, but it’s deeply unlikely without an external force prompting it, and it would go through the same lengthy rulemaking process as before.

And so, the courts. But the FCC has been prepared for the inevitable lawsuits for many months, and crafted the entire new rule with the court’s tossing-out of the 2010 rule in mind. FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is confident that the FCC can win on this round.

And yet, in terms of AT&T and others continuing to invest in their own companies and company infrastructure, net neutrality pretty much doesn’t matter. Companies are going to do whatever makes them money, and the internet is — and will not stop being — big business.

Why net rules no longer an investment barrier: AT&T [CNBC via Ars Technica]

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