3 big questions remain as net neutrality heads to the end game

The FCC has scheduled a February 26 vote on net neutrality, touching off a final flurry of debate over how the agency should oversee the internet. The home stretch will be dominated by politics, public perception and, just maybe, by Google.

The policy positions are clear enough: consumer advocates, and most Democrats, believe the FCC should invoke so-called “Title II” provisions that would require broadband providers to treat websites alike, and stop them for creating special fast lanes for certain sites. The telecom industry, supported by Republicans, counter that such net neutrality rules could harm innovation.

But certain wildcards make the final outcome hard to predict. Here are three unresolved questions to watch in coming weeks:

How far will Republicans go to stop Title II?

A spate of stories in the last week, particularly in the Wall Street Journal and Politico, suggest the GOP could respond with a burn-it-down approach if FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler dares to reclassify broadband providers as public utilities under Title II. The threatened retaliation includes budget cuts to the FCC, new legislation to stamp out Title II or obstructionist antics to prevent Wheeler conducting an important spectrum auction. It’s unclear, however, if the Republicans would actually go through with all of these measures — or if Title II opponents are just raising them in the media as a way to intimidate Wheeler and net neutrality supporters into backing down.

The legislative threats, for instance, may be hollow since President Obama wields a veto pen for two more years, and he has made clear he supports Title II. Meanwhile, a move to scuttle the planned auction could backfire in light of the fact that a recent spectrum sale raised an eye-popping $45 billion for the federal government: would Republicans really forgo that type of money simply to stick it to Wheeler?

But given the increasingly ideological tenor of the debate, anything could happen between now and early February, when Wheeler’s final proposal is likely to be leaked.

What does the public believe (and do they care)?

Republicans have been attempting to equate net neutrality with over-regulation and bumbling bureaucrats. If such rhetoric proves persuasive, it will give Title II opponents the upper-hand in the public debate since policy decisions that smack of big government are unpopular with the public. (It’s true that Title II wouldn’t necessarily be a burden due to so-called forbearance rules, but these sort of details are typically too arcane for political sound bites).

On the other hand, Republicans’ position makes them standard bearers for the likes of Comcast, AT&T and Verizon — companies that oppose Title II, but that are also deeply, deeply unpopular with the American public. This means Democrats and net neutrality debates could sway the debate if they can frame Title II as pro-consumer, rather than as government meddling with markets.

Finally, the outcome will turn on how many people are paying attention in the first place. While the issue has gripped Reddit readers and parts of the Beltway, it’s unclear how many average voters know or care about net neutrality in the first place. The issue gained brief traction last fall thanks to comedian John Oliver and an “internet slow down” day, but that has been waning (the momentum could change again, however, if the topic pops up in the President’s State of the Union address on January 20)

Will Google get on board?

The last time the net neutrality debate crested in 2011, Google was front and center. This time, the search giant is sitting on the sidelines, offering only vague support for net neutrality, and leaving relative small fish like Netflix and Etsy, which lack any real lobbying clout, to lead corporate opposition to Comcast and the rest of the telecom industry.

But last week, Google signaled it might step into the fray after all. In a filing with the FCC, the company pointed out that the agency could use Title II to oblige incumbents to grant access to utility poles and other infrastructure. In practice, this would make it much cheaper for Google to deploy its Fiber technology — and increase the competition for broadband.

While the filing falls short of a full-throated endorsement for Title II, it does provide the FCC with new ammunition if it chooses to defy the telecom industry. And if Google does decide to go all in, its endorsement would likely prove to be a game-changer, leading to a shift in lobbying power, and causing the rest of the tech sector to follow suit in favor of Title II.