Nice! Wheeler steps up with real proposal for net neutrality

6 Comments

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday unveiled his plans for mandating real network neutrality and preventing ISPs from discriminating against traffic on their pipes in an opinion piece in Wired. While much of the plan was leaked to the press earlier in the week, and the tenor of his network neutrality arguments had been shifting for months, it’s worth looking at how far Wheeler has come.

Hell, it’s important to look at how far the country has come. But first we need the main points of the plan, which were not detailed in the Wired op-ed but should be released later today and appear to be focused on making sure both wireless and wireline broadband will follow the same rules. If you are just tuning in, the regulatory oomph will come from reclassifying broadband as a transport service, not as an information service under Title II of the 1996 Telecommunication Act. This means that ISPs will have to abide by common carrier obligations. But not all of them.

In the Wired op-ed, Wheeler writes:

To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, 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.

Congress wisely gave the FCC the power to update its rules to keep pace with innovation. Under that authority my proposal includes a general conduct rule that can be used to stop new and novel threats to the internet.

Wheeler is warning Congress that he has this power (and it’s doubtful that Congress could get it together to take that away) and that all the ISP talk about how regulating broadband will harm investment is a sham. He’s also setting the FCC up to be flexible in the future, which depending on how that rule is written could be helpful or just a bunch of talk aimed at pleasing people. We shall wait and see.

But for the moment, let’s remember that this is a huge step. Back in 2005 when Chairman Michael Powell proposed the Open Internet Principles of transparency and non-discrimination, they were just that, principles — something to strive for. But after an ISP in Wisconsin was caught blocking VoIP calls that interfered with its lucrative landline business and Comcast was caught blocking legal BitTorrent streams, it became clear that ISPs viewed certain types of IP content as threats to their business models.

And when FCC Chairman Kevin Martin, who was more of a friend to the Bells than a staunch supporter of the consumer, censured Comcast for its behavior, the debate over how to ensure ISPs didn’t abuse their power bubbled up into a real debate over how to handle network neutrality. But even then, the idea of regulating ISPs under Title II was not a topic that people would bring up. It was far easier to talk about and then go through a grueling debate to try to enshrine those original Open Internet Principles into some type of new regulation, than go to Title II.

That would be insane and a political non-starter. So then-Chairman Julius Genachowski decided to make net neutrality his big fight. He began holding hearings and talking up freedom, glory and the sanctity of the internet — but he ultimately caved before the ISPs and Google and gave us a watered-down version of net neutrality that split wireline and wireless and ultimately ended up failing in court — ironically, thanks to the lawsuit that Comcast had filed against the FCC after Kevin Martin censured it for blocking BitTorrent.

But while Genachowski was backing down, talk of Title II was bubbling up. After the courts had threatened the FCC’s authority in the Comcast ruling, people began looking for bigger guns to bring to the fight, and Title II was a nuclear bomb. When Genachowski’s weak net neutrality compromise was gutted by the courts and Wheeler was left to pick up the mess, his initial play was to patch it up and move on to his real agenda. But the activist and consumer interest was so high that he couldn’t.

So Wheeler, who has proven himself a man with far more integrity than the last commissioner, has taken up the job of sifting through the history of the internet, listened to the players and recognized that if we want to continue with the internet we have and expect it to behave the same way in the future, then we really do need network neutrality — real network neutrality. And the only way to get it appears to be to pull out that nuclear bomb. So he’s doing it.

That takes a lot of guts and a keen understanding of the U.S. market. I may not agree with everything in this proposal, but after almost a decade of covering broadband, I know that this proposal will change things. It won’t be the end of the world for ISPs, although it may cause a little short-term pain for some. It should be neutral for larger tech companies, which already have plenty of other advantages thanks to network effects. Smaller companies should benefit. And most importantly, it will be good for the consumer, who is, after all, who the government is there to protect.

6 Comments

stuart brainerd

Can we step back a bit and retrace the steps that are bringing us to mandated regulation of the Internet? The pace of technology, especially in wireless and mobile, is nearly impossible to predict, and therefore any intelligent regulation will avoid picking winners and losers in the technology battle, and will avoid mandates that derive from overly zealous top down social planning. Clearly over the years we have given monopoly-like rights to the local phone companies (Ma Bell, Baby Bells, AT&T) and cable TV franchises, under the premise that it has been too expensive to support multiple facility carriers and too cumbersome to give all potential carriers the necessary rights of way to bring cables to every neighborhood. And we have had various mandates in place for years that encumber the Ma Bell derivatives – namely universal service, lifeline service, 911 services, and the associated tax burdens. But with all this, and seeing how mobile is moving quickly to become a viable alternative to fixed landline broadband (not to mention satellite provided video / TV service), what is the crux of the issues today that are pushing us towards regulation? Certainly not because Comcast blocked BitTorrent — arguably their perogative that existing contract law and competition could sort out.

Steve Dallas

Cool I guess, but this part is very disappointing: “no last-mile unbundling.” So we’re still stuck paying exorbitant rates to a handful of huge ISPs.

dongateley

Could you guys give a summary description of what last-mile unbundling is for those of us who aren’t savvy enough with the system to immediately get the implications?

baseer

Last mile = the local streets to get to your place. These local streets are connected to throughways, expressways, highways and freeways. Lack of last-mile unbundling means an ISP such as GoogleFiber or any other new ISP would not have rights to use/share the local streets to get to your place. They’d need to build new streets to get to your place if they wanted to provide you service.

RaccoonChad

I can’t wait to see the post that finally says our internet will remain neutral. Part of me also feels that the Internet needs to have a “Constitution” of sorts. Thanks for the post :)

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