Details about FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s net neutrality plan emerged yesterday, and it left D.C. types all atwitter. But this is not just an inside-the-Beltway issue. It could impact how your ISP runs their network and what type of recourse you have if you think they’re doing something shady.
The details are all very wonky—I can sense you all nodding off at the mention of things like Title II, forbearance, and inter-connection. But if you care about the openness of the Internet—and you should—listen up. Here are some of the most noteworthy parts of Wheeler’s proposal and what you need to know about them. And check out the top players’ reactions in the slideshow below.
Chairman Wheeler has decided to “reclassify” broadband as a telecom service rather than an information service. What does that mean? Basically that ISPs will have to answer to the FCC more so than they do now. The FCC already handles issues related to telecom companies – like those that provide landline phone service – and it would extend that oversight to ISPs, too.
Why is this important? The FCC is trying to pass net neutrality rules that will stick. It has already been sued over previous net neutrality rules – first by Comcast and then by Verizon – and the court has sided with the ISPs both times. The court said the FCC has some authority to monitor broadband issues, but it lacks the power to hand down regulations that apply to the ISPs.
That’s because the Internet is considered an “information service,” something the Supreme Court established in the 2005 Brand X case. How do you fix that? Give yourself the authority, of course. Chairman Wheeler’s plan is to say that the Internet should actually be considered a telecom service, which would give the FCC much more authority to hand down net neutrality regulations and intervene if a customer has a complaint. If an ISP sues again, the FCC is also much more likely to prevail if ISPs have been reclassified as a telecom service.
ISPs won’t be subject to all the rules their telecom counterparts must follow; Wheeler has said he wants to take a 21st century approach to reclassification. Namely, the FCC has promised that ISPs won’t be subject to rate regulation or tariffs, last-mile unbundling, or the burdensome paperwork traditional telecom firms are subject to now.
President Obama also supports this approach (see video).
2. No Paid Prioritization
Before he landed on reclassification, Chairman Wheeler threw around a bunch of ideas, one of which was allowing paid prioritization at times when it was commercially reasonable.
The FCC never got specific on what that meant; the only real example it provided was a prioritized connection for someone with an at-home heart-rate monitor that didn’t significantly impact Internet traffic to anyone else.
But paid prioritization – or the idea that a company could pay to have their traffic or content move faster than someone else – is the exact opposite of what net neutrality wants to accomplish. As a result, net neutrality advocates flipped out, and Wheeler eventually softened his approach and simply asked the public what they thought about paid prioritization during the public comment period.
The final rules get very specific: no paid prioritization. “I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services,” Wheeler wrote in an op-ed for Wired.
3. The Rules Cover the Wireless Industry
The last time the FCC passed net neutrality regulations was in 2010, and the wireless industry successfully argued that it was still growing and should not be subject to all of the rules, lest it thwart innovation.
The FCC agreed, applying only one part of its rules to mobile broadband: transparency, which meant wireless carriers had to be up front about their practices. But the industry was exempt from everything else – until now.
Going forward, the FCC’s net neutrality rules would cover consumers however they access the Web: PC, phone, tablet, etc. and all Internet service providers (cable, satellite, wireless) would have to adhere to three basic rules: no blocking, no throttling specific apps or content, and no paid prioritization.
4. Showdown at the Inter-Connection Corral
Last year, you might have noticed a few stories about Netflix fighting with ISPs like Comcast and Verizon about “inter-connection” or “peering” deals. Basically, these agreements provide Netflix with direct access to an ISP’s network, which speeds up Netflix’s service on those ISPs. If you’re a customer of an ISP that has one of these inter-connection deals with Netflix (like Comcast, Verizon, or AT&T), you’re less likely to see your Netflix videos buffer or stall.
Cool, right? Not according to Netflix, which has likened these deals to extortion and called for the FCC to put a stop to them by passing strong net neutrality regulations.
At first, the FCC said it wasn’t going to include inter-connection in its net neutrality rules because it already had enough on its plate there. But it did agree to investigate who was really to blame for things like Netflix slowdowns.
Fast forward to yesterday, and the FCC has decided to include inter-connection in its net neutrality rules after all. The agency is not going to ban these deals, though. Instead, it will let companies like Netflix and individuals who believe an inter-connection deal might be unfair to file a complaint with the FCC. The agency will decide whether it does anything about these complaints on a case-by-case basis.
5. ISPs, Carriers, and Republicans are NOT Happy
Not surprisingly, ISPs are irked by the chairman’s plan (that’s the NCTA’s banner above). In general, most people involved in this debate are in favor of net neutrality. They differ, however, on how it should be preserved.
ISPs will tell you that the market has worked just fine without net neutrality rules: just look at the growth in video streams and smartphone users, they say. Consumer groups, however, argue that there’s nothing to stop these ISPs from engaging in shady behavior. At least with net neutrality rules on the books, people will be able to complain to the FCC if they think something is amiss.
In Congress, the issue split right down party lines. President Obama backs reclassification, as do a number of Democrats, like Sen. Al Franken. Republicans, however, are currently working on legislation that would strip the FCC of its authority to introduce net neutrality rules like these, though it remains to be seen if that will get any traction, and Obama is likely to veto it.