By Thomas Scott
How the FCC must decide the future of competition across the entire internet
AT&T has long been the harbinger of change in the nation’s telecommunications landscape.
Once the nation’s sole telephone monopoly, it has made waves recently in its present incarnation when it announced that online services that pay the company a fee will not be included in its customers’ data caps.
This decision comes alongside a federal circuit court’s decision to side with Verizon in its case against the Federal Communications Commission (FCC).
The FCC’s net neutrality rules were overturned in the process.
These regulations, introduced in 2010, required all Internet traffic to be treated equally by Internet service providers.
This means that the Internet traffic created by one individual has to be treated the same as a business, for example.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, this meant “Telecoms couldn’t block any lawful data or unreasonably discriminate against any source, or destination, of lawful data.”
In court, however, the FCC went about justifying its regulatory regime in a very piecemeal manner.
According to USA Today, “The agency attempted to ‘pick and choose’ its regulatory powers in regard to the Internet … sometimes looking at broadband providers … like telephone companies, and other times at information services.”
The FCC considered broadband Internet to be an information service, not a telecommunications service.
What’s more, the Bush administration purposely gave broadband that designation since such services were subject to a different set of federal regulations, after being lobbied by cable companies.
The FCC was given the power to regulate such services by Congress in 1996 through the Telecommunications Act.
However, that legislation pre-dates the modern day, when most Americans had broadband Internet access.
In the end, the court found that the FCC had gone further than its statute allowed, ushering in a new era for the Internet.
The question on everyone’s minds is what the Internet will be like without net neutrality.
Large telecom companies seem to think that such a change will be more conducive to private enterprise, by allowing them to implement a pay structure based on the demand for certain services, such as Netflix.
According to USA Today, the streaming giant “is a bandwidth hog, accounting for nearly one-third of all Net traffic during peak periods.”
Telecom companies probably see such a course of action as a worthwhile return on their investment.
As the Christian Science Monitor asserts, these companies “build and maintain the Internet’s pipelines, and … constantly upgrade them as technology becomes faster and more sophisticated.”
The end of net neutrality could significantly hurt those who cannot pay to have their traffic in the fast lane.
According to Wired, such a policy could negatively affect public institutions such as libraries since ISPs may end up “prioritizing high-quality Internet access for entertainment over education.”
According to AdAge’s Tim Peterson, however, this could bring opportunity. He writes that in the event that ISPs hike up rates based on traffic, advertisers and content producers could step in on behalf of users to subsidize traffic.
Peterson argues that “media companies could be asked to pony up more money to broadband providers to ensure sites load at normal speeds.”
This could be helpful to consumers, who could be facing significantly higher bills from their ISPs.
There is another solution, though.
According to Business Week’s Brendan Greeley, all the FCC needs to do is put its foot down.
The basis of his argument is that the FCC already has the power to enforce net neutrality, its just not using it. All the FCC needs to do is affirm “that a company that owns the wires is a common-carrier telecommunication service.”
The idea of a common carrier is an old one. In medieval England a ferry operator “could not deny any man passage” since “crossing was too vital to commerce.”
In the same sense, a free and open Internet may also be vital to commerce. It’s not as though the FCC would be exceeding its powers if it were to do so. In fact according to Business Week, the “Supreme Court already confirmed that the FCC is within its rights to make this decision.“