It didn’t take long for American consumers’ vocal approval of the Federal Communications Commission Feb. 26 net neutrality ruling to be drown out by a predictable backlash from Big Cable.
But the service providers’ protests arise not from the bans on paid prioritization, blocking and throttling — the points Internet activists had rallied around — but the FCC’s decision to reclassify broadband Internet as a telecom service under Title II of the Communications Act, imposing the same regulatory oversight as on wired telephone lines.
Since Internet access can now be regulated like a public utility, service providers are required to act in the public interest. Notably, other sections of public utility legislation such as the setting of price controls will not apply to broadband service.
For consumers, public utility protection means they can lodge a complaint if they believe they are receiving unfair treatment, and the FCC will investigate the matter. Regulators, meanwhile, will have the power to reprimand companies they believe are acting against the public interest, including on issues such as price gouging.
Essentially, the Open Internet Order applies minimal additional regulation to cable companies because the FCC was more concerned with empowering consumers to lodge complains about unfair treatment. The new protections also extended equally to both fixed and mobile networks for the first time, a vital measure since mobile wireless connections now account for 55 percent of Internet usage.
With the level to which we have come to depend on Web connectivity, broadband networks are a pervasive force that can single-handedly reshape the economy. So it’s completely unsurprising Big Cable quivered with frustration once its power was checked.
Verizon Communications, which is set to make a dramatic exit from the tri-county telecom market once the sale of its California assets to Frontier Communications closes, responded with a snide statement composed in morse code to mock the “1930s rules” it felt the government had imposed. The note’s content, translated by the company below the original, adopts a theatrical tone that helps to mask the hyperbole of its claim.
Michael Glover, the company’s senior vice president of public policy and government affairs, described the move as “wholly unnecessary” and lamented that the FCC “chose to change the way the commercial Internet has operated since its creation.”
According to a statement from Cox Communications Senior Vice President and California Region Manager Dave Bialis, the ruling’s reclassification of broadband “is a risk to the Internet, which has been an ever increasing robust engine of commerce, communications and learning since its creation.”
Comcast, which is still awaiting the Federal Trade Commission’s approval of its proposed merger with Time Warner Cable, simply reminded everyone it doesn’t agree with the Title II provision but — since it recently closed another multi-billion dollar deal with NBC/Universal — the company is already operating under stricter provisions and thus isn’t concerning itself with the ruling.
Kathleen Abernathy, Frontier’s executive vice president of external affairs, took a softer tone in her statement, saying the company does not “believe the FCC adopted the correct regulatory policy approach” in reclassifying Internet as a utility because Frontier already addresses the core issues of net neutrality — but no mention of the core issue of civil rights the Title II switch actually addresses.
Time Warner Cable, the sole pacifist, wrote that its commitment to customer service and access, “which long precedes the FCC rules, will not be affected by today’s court decision.” I’ll let TWC’s customers decide whether that’s good or bad news.
For now, the backlash only reaffirms that Web giants such as Netflix and Twitter are the “winners” in the net neutrality ruling. Until the appeals come through, that is.
It seems the only sure result the Open Internet Order will deliver is years of litigation and a murky regulatory landscape, crippling investment to challenge an order that has a plurality of popular support.