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US telcos slam FCC net neutrality rulings

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AT&T, Comcast and Verizon have all denounced the FCC’s net neutrality ruling, which saw a reclassification of broadband as a telecoms service under Title II. All three were staunch in their opposition to the ruling, releasing official statements declaring their disagreement, while the threat of future litigation looms due to the narrow majority of the vote.

For now the FCC appears to have finally had its way in the serial drama that is the Net Neutrality debate in the USA, imposing what it refers to as “strong, sustainable” rules in relation to provisioning of internet services by America’s ISPs and mobile broadband providers. The ruling was passed through with a narrow 3-to-2 majority win.

A protracted session involved multiple statements of support and dissent, as well as a cameo from the inventor of the World Wide Web, Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who praised the ruling which saw ISPs being classified as telecommunications service providers under the Title II regulatory framework, and as such being required to treat all broadband traffic equally.

Underpinning the entire debate, and the primary motivator for the re-emergence of the FCC’s determined approach to ensuring an open internet, is the ongoing success of content delivery service providers, such as Netflix. Netflix last year claimed Verizon, AT&T and Comcast restricted or otherwise throttled bandwidth being made available to its service, therefore reducing the quality of service passed on to consumers.

Responding to the FCC’s ruling, Netflix itself released an official statement, in which it praised the move to protect openness and consumer services, while indicating that Net Neutrality regulations can only cover so much ground, with regards to network interconnection points.

“Today’s order is a meaningful step towards ensuring ISPs cannot shift bad conduct upstream to where they interconnect with content providers like Netflix,” it said. “Net neutrality rules are only as strong as their weakest link, and it’s incumbent on the FCC to ensure these interconnection points aren’t used to end-run the principles of an open Internet.

“Given the lack of competition among broadband providers, today’s other FCC decision preventing regulations that thwart local investment in new broadband infrastructure also is an important step toward ensuring greater consumer choice. These actions kick off a new era that puts the consumer, not litigious corporate giants, at the centre of competition policy.”

Verizon’s attempted a satirical retort to the news by releasing a statement dated February 26th 1934 (the year in which the first Communications Act was passed), and presented with a typewriter font, suggesting a retrograde route is being taken by the FCC.

In the statement, Michael E. Glover, Verizon’s SVP of Public Policy and Government Affairs, said: “Today’s decision by the FCC to encumber broadband Internet services with badly antiquated regulations is a radical step that presages a time of uncertainty for consumers, innovators and investors.”

“What has been and will remain constant before, during and after the existence of any regulations is Verizon’s commitment to an open Internet that provides consumers with competitive broadband choices and Internet access when, where, and how they want,” he said.

AT&T’s Jim Cicconi provided a perspective seemingly belonging to an episode of House of Cards, by stating: “Perhaps I’m betraying my years, but in Washington policy circles there has always been tension between those interested in solving problems and those who see policy disputes as a test of ideology.”

While stating his, and presumably AT&T’s, disagreement with the ruling, Cicconi appeared to hint at the possibility of future litigation through Congress and the courts.

“Instead of a clear set of rules moving forward, with a broad set of agreement behind them, we once again face the uncertainty of litigation, and the very real potential of having to start over – again – in the future.  Partisan decisions taken on 3-2 votes can be undone on similarly partisan 3-2 votes only two years hence.  And FCC decisions made without clear authorization by Congress (and who can honestly argue Congress intended this?) can be undone quickly by Congress or the courts.  This may suit partisans who lust for issues of political division, but it isn’t healthy for the Internet ecosystem, for the economy, or for our political system.”

Comcast’s EVP David L. Cohen appeared equally resigned to future litigation and legal challenges to the FCC’s ruling, saying: “Today, the FCC voted 3-2 to adopt new Open Internet rules – rules that we support and agree should be put in place as legally enforceable by the FCC.  Unfortunately, the FCC also decided to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.  We are disappointed the Commission chose this route, which is certain to lead to years of litigation and regulatory uncertainty and may greatly harm investment and innovation, when the use of Section 706 alone would have provided a much more certain and legally sustainable path.”

One of the primary questions arising from the debate came down to who would be responsible for the cost of infrastructure upgrade, in an age where consumers are increasingly turning to over-the-top (OTT) providers for video content, which subsequently strains existing infrastructure.

At its core, the FCC’s ruling will open up complaint channels and legal opportunities for companies that feel they’ve been treated unfairly by ISPs, or had their services throttled. An official statement from the FCC clarified the salient points of the ruling:

“The Order establishes that ISPs cannot “unreasonably interfere with or unreasonably disadvantage” the ability of consumers to select, access, and use the lawful content, applications, services, or devices of their choosing; or of edge providers to make lawful content, applications, services, or devices available to consumers,” it said. “Today’s Order ensures that the Commission will have authority to address questionable practices on a case-by-case basis, and provides guidance in the form of factors on how the Commission will apply the standard in practice.”

Standing in staunch opposition, Commissioner Ajit Pai was unrelenting in his dissent. During an impassioned speech in which he looked to appeal to the hundreds of small ISPs across the country, he concluded with words of warning, saying: “Remember:  broadband networks don’t have to be built.  Capital doesn’t have to be invested here.  Risks don’t have to be taken. The more difficult the FCC makes the business case for deployment, the less likely it is that broadband providers big and small will connect Americans with digital opportunities.”

While opposition to the movement is clear from the US telcos, the FCC’s ruling by no means marks the end of this saga. As alluded to by multiple parties, future litigation and a revisit of the ruling look to be on the cards, as more twists and turns on the regulatory road loom on the horizon.


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