Net Neutrality Debate at CES, FCC's Scramble for Legislation Could Produce Partisan Hot-Button

By Published January 12, 2015 at 12:00 am

The last year has seen a massive surge in interest in the FCC and Net Neutrality. We've reported on it a few times -- partly to educate and partly to help motivate readers to voice an opinion -- and boy, did people speak up. Over four million individual comments were logged with the FCC regarding their opinion of this issue, spanning gamers to Barack Obama. It shouldn't come as any surprise that the industry wanted to approach the net neutrality conversation during CES.

The panel was made up of 3 people with significantly different points of view on the issue: Mozilla Senior Policy Engineer Chris Riley represented the content-provider side; Hank Hultquist, Vice President - Federal Regulatory for AT&T, represented the major service provider point of view. Barbara S. Esbin, Partner with Cinnamon Mueller, represented the American Cable Association, an association looking after the interests of the smaller cable internet providers.

Probably the most interesting bit was the perspective of the ACA. Unlike Verizon or AT&T, the average size of the clients the ACA represents only service around 1000 people. The negotiating power of a single cable provider turned ISP is nil in an industry that has global customers, like Google and Netflix. Esbin expressed concern that the reclassification would affect her client base in two major ways.

The first is that 60% of ACA members began as cable companies and have never been under the Title II classification. This means having to hire regulatory counsel to comply with any and all new requirements and review existing practices as well as new fees and assessment costs, also known as doing what every other non-cable company ISP has to do. The second was something I hadn't heard of before. The current concept of Net Neutrality is too narrowly one sided, i.e. affects only the ISP and not the content providers. This should come as a duh moment, but it is a known practice for the smaller companies that during contract negotiations with content providers -- think CBS or ESPN -- the content provider will restrict ISP customer access to their streaming web videos and programs. After hearing what Esbin had to say, I must agree with her that there is an issue when only one side is required to play by the rules.

But then I'm reminded that the rules currently aren't enforceable and neither side is playing by them. All 3 points of view were skeptical that the FCC rushing to change to Title II would actually resolve anything, and not for the reason I was expecting. The obvious thought is that whichever way the FCC goes, reclassifying the internet as a service/utility or not, the opponent of this option will most likely instantly file suit to try to get the courts to go their way. This is normal for many businesses whenever there is any significant change. All 3 sides agreed that a rushed decision would be volatile for the industry, indicating it as a political hot-button issue, much like climate change. Politicians have a party-based position -- especially with the POTUS' endorsement of net neutrality -- and probably don't understand any of the intricacies of what is actually involved. The Republicans in control of both houses might try pushing anti-neutrality legislature because the President chose the opposite side, but this would probably just get vetoed anyway.

Politics in action. Or inaction, as it were.

I don't expect the bickering to progress that far, though, as the FCC is pushing to get something out quickly.

The rest of what was mentioned was mostly covered in our previous articles, and really we are currently in a limbo until February 26th when the FCC votes on the upcoming proposal that FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler should be presenting towards the beginning of next month. When we have more information on the proposal and when the FCC votes on it, we'll let you know.

Also, feel free to bug all the politicians -- or at least their interns -- with what you would like to see happen. Skepticism of the system aside, it's up to us to make them do something.

- Scott "Abibiliboop" Griffin.

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