US cable and telecom operators have responded angrily to President Barack Obama’s call for the strongest form of net neutrality and the implementation of new regulations to ensure that all internet traffic should be given equal treatment.
Obama has called for a reclassification of broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the country’s Telecommunications Act, giving the FCC greater power to regulate them.
The decision on how to classify service providers is left to the FCC itself, but Obama’s call for a tightening of net neutrality protections comes after intense public pressure for more regulation in this area.
Comcast executive vice-president and chief diversity officer in open internet, David Cohen, said that “Comcast fully embraces the open internet principles that the President and the Chairman of the FCC have espoused – transparency, no blocking, non-discrimination rules, and no ‘fast lanes’, which is the way we operate our network today”.
Cohen said that Comcast, other cable companies and telcos had “led the broadband revolution”, which in large part had “only happened because we were not subject to the intrusive regulatory regime designed for a different era”.
“To attempt to impose a full-blown Title II regime now, when the classification of cable broadband has always been as an information service, would reverse nearly a decade of precedent, including findings by the Supreme Court that this classification was proper. This would be a radical reversal that would harm investment and innovation, as today’s immediate stock market reaction demonstrates. And such a radical reversal of consistent contrary precedent should be taken up by the Congress,” he said.
Comcast’s sentiments were echoed by other service providers, including AT&T, whose senior executive vice-president, for external and legislative affairs, Jim Cicconi, said that the White House announcement, if acted upon by the FCC, “would be a mistake that will do tremendous harm to the Internet and to US national interests”.
“It is a complete reversal of a bipartisan policy that has been in place since the Clinton Administration – namely, to treat Internet access as an information service subject to light-touch regulation,” said Cicconi.
“This classification of Internet service has been upheld by the Supreme Court and has enjoyed strong Congressional support for nearly a generation. Now, with one statement, the White House is telling the FCC to ignore this precedent and to instead impose on the entire Internet – from end to end – onerous government regulation designed in the 1930s for a Bell phone monopoly that no longer exists, not for a 21st century technology. This will have a negative impact not only on investment and innovation, but also on our economy overall.”
Cicconi said AT&T would “expect to participate in a legal challenge” if the president’s call is acted up by the FCC and, like Cohen, said that such a decision should be the responsibility of – now Republican-controlled – Congress rather than the regulator. Senate leader-in-waiting Mitch McConnell has already said that the FCC should reject Obama’s recommendation.
FCC chairman Tom Wheeler described Obama’s statement as “an important and welcome addition to the record” on open internet and agreed that “both oppose internet fast lanes”.
Wheeler said that a compromise ‘hybrid’ solution, enabling operators to charge for access to ‘fast lanes’ for some services, raised “substantive legal questions” that would require substantial work if a legally watertight solution is to be found. A hybrid solution could theoretically combine a Title II reclassification with the use of Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which empowers the FCC to enact measures that encourage the deployment of broadband infrastructure.
Last month Wheeler called for OTT service providers to be reclassified as multichannel video programming distributor (MVPD), the current classification for cable and telco providers, making the term platform-neutral.
If the FCC acts on Obama’s call, Congressional room for manoeuvre could be limited, as any action it takes could be vetoed by the president.
Obama’s move is seen as aligning him with advocates of net neutrality including large internet companies like Google, and OTT providers, and against cable and telecom service providers.