The way this Net Neutrality debate stirs up the Internet zealots, you would think that the U.S. Constitution has an article that says: “Ye should all have a right to reasonably priced Netflix downloads.”
The issue is back, and the FCC wants to take the lead. Yesterday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Thomas Wheeler stepped up the FCC’s bid to regulate Internet access and services by introducing a new proposal for Net Neutrality rules, whereby the FCC would reclassify broadband Internet as a Title II telecom service. He launched his PR effort with an article in Wired. I guess Wheeler, a career lobbyist-turned-bureaucrat, is now hip because he writes for Wired.
Wheeler depicts the FCC as a leading authority on the Internet, including its role in the early days — where apparently it was a pioneer in unbundling AT&T’s phone network. This is a cheeky claim, but it does point out the real issue with Net Neutrality regulations: The FCC wants control.
Net Neutrality, which essentially tries to regulate the architecture of the Internet, is no simple matter. But, philosophically, most of the recent arguments can be boiled down to this: Should the FCC have more control over how Internet service providers (ISPs) charge for access to high-bandwidth content, or should it not?
There are jurisdictional and tactical issues: What kind of rules do you put in place about this, and who’s in charge? Regardless of where you stand on government regulation of the Internet, it’s clear the FCC is pressing forward to be the place where Internet broadband regulations are governed, which will set up for a nice political and media battle (again) for many months to come.
Some excerpts from Wheeler’s article:
Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC… 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.
As you can see, Wheeler is being careful to advocate “light touch” regulation, by which Title II — the ancient definition of telecom services dating back to the Telecom Act of 1934 — gets modernized for the Spotify and Netflix generation. But this is also a land grab, in which the FCC gains jurisdiction to regulate Internet connections, where it previously did not. The Internet, you see, has enjoyed special status as an FCC-free zone.
It’s these legal jurisdictional questions that have been at the heart of the Internet regulation debate over time, where the FCC has repeatedly lost the battle for control. As I have explained, one of the last dozen times the issue has bubbled up, there is no simple Net Neutrality switch to turn on. It’s a rat’s nest of legal and commercial technicalities.
But back to Wheeler’s proposal. The FCC Chairman proposes that we make ISPs — which include a broad range of data service providers, cable multiple system operators (MSOs), and traditional telecoms — into Title II common carriers.
The biggest fear about any tweak in Title II designation and regulation of the Internet to achieve the vaunted “Net Neutrality” is “paid prioritization,” or quite simply, whether Netflix or other content providers can pay broadband carriers extra fees to get access to a speedier plug into the Internet.
Paid prioritization, broadband access, and Internet peering — or the sharing of traffic in the central fabric of the Internet — is a complex issue. But paid prioritization is a core element for both critics and proponents of increased Net Neutrality rules.
Paid prioritization means free market, or one Internet content company paying a service provider to speed up the delivery of its content. Advocates of allowing this say it’s just like allowing you to buy a faster car, or a high-speed pass through the toll booth. Opponents of paid prioritization say it jeopardizes the concept of Net Neutrality by allowing Internet bullies to suck up all the bandwidth.
This will take a while, and the lawyers will get their take. Federal courts have a history of defeating FCC efforts to impose new rules on service providers and Internet business, and the U.S. Congress is certainly going to go over this thing with a fine-toothed comb (after consulting with lobbyists).
My position has been this: The Internet has grown faster than any other market in history because it has been mostly unregulated. This has allowed investment and innovation to pour into the space.
Bandwidth is a real thing that must be paid for by somebody. Netflix is not actually a civil right, it is a luxury content service. I don’t think trying to regulate Net Neutrality will ever work, frankly.
Be careful about putting this into the hands of the FCC, because it may actually make your Internet connection slower.