FCC can’t take eyes off internet
Here we go again. For the fourth time in the past decade, the Federal Communications Commission is proposing a dramatic change in the way it treats the internet — this time, suggesting a near-complete abdication of its efforts to guard consumers against meddling by the companies that sell them internet access. Pushed by its new Republican majority, the commission formally proposed Thursday to repeal the “net neutrality” rules the previous Democratic majority adopted in 2015, replacing them with … nothing specific, and possibly nothing at all. Although Chairman Ajit Pai says he believes in an open internet, he sees no real threat from broadband providers such as Comcast, AT&T and Charter. A host of websites, online services, developers and startups vehemently disagree, and for good reason.
In far too many communities, only one or two broadband providers offer high-speed internet access to homes. In the absence of competition, these companies have both the opportunity and the incentive to become internet gatekeepers, charging websites, services and app developers for the privilege of reaching their customers’ devices. In far too many communities, only one or two broadband providers offer high-speed internet access to homes. Imagine two high-definition video services, only one of which pays your broadband provider to make sure that its streams never freeze or degrade. Even if the other one has a better selection of titles, which one is likely to attract viewers?
Broadband providers insist that they believe in an open internet, too. But over the years, executives have talked openly about new business models that could help them pay for faster networks — models that involve letting a website or online service pay to cut through congestion on the network. Such prioritization might help a new health-monitoring service, for example, but it might also simply be a way to out-compete a rival. Pai and fellow Republican Commissioner Michael O’Rielly say the 2015 net neutrality rules, which classified broadband providers as utilities subject to strict regulation, led those companies to reduce investment. As a consequence, they argue, the companies haven’t improved their networks, nor have they extended them to more people who don’t have broadband.
Whether the industry actually reduced its investment is subject to considerable debate, and even the companies that did appear to cut their capital spending may have done so for reasons that had nothing to do with net neutrality rules. For example, critics of the rules often point to AT&T’s reduction in spending, but ignore the $49 billion AT&T spent in 2015 acquiring DirecTV, whose satellites deliver TV signals more efficiently than AT&T’s wires. The proposal now faces several months of public comment and scrutiny, as well as a cost-benefit analysis by the FCC.
There’s only one sure way to stop this regulatory carousel, and that’s for Congress to grant the FCC clear authority to protect internet users from interference by broadband providers. The day may be coming when mobile phone networks and other wireless systems can finally provide a real substitute for wired broadband, bringing the competition that truly spurs investment and innovation in broadband while protecting consumers. Until then, the FCC can’t simply walk off the job.
— Los Angeles Times