‘Net’ gain from FCC decision unclear

Thursday’s reversal of net neutrality rules leave local internet service providers, users uncertain about impacts

Dec. 16, 2017 — The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) repealed its own 2015 ruling on net neutrality Thursday, scoring a victory for large cable companies and leaving many skeptical about the future of a free and open internet. The vote reflects a hotly debated claim that previous net neutrality rules were overbearing and stifling to the marketplace. Supporters of the previous regulatory system argue that net neutrality is necessary to protect consumers and small businesses from corporate manipulation.

Net neutrality is the principle that all data on the internet should be equally accessible and that internet regulators, such as governments or internet service providers (ISPs), should not be able to prioritize or degrade access to content.

The loss of these precepts in effect entrusts the cable and wireless companies to adhere to net neutrality standards on a voluntary basis.

And while major service providers had openly voiced their support for a free and open internet in the lead-up to this vote, not everyone feels inclined to take them at their word.

“We’re gonna be screwed by the corporate-dominated telecom ISP industry,” said Rand Dawson, a Siltcoos Lake area resident who relies heavily on internet access in his work. “I’m concerned about speed, access and cost. I’m concerned about all three of these functions because these large corporate interests will find a way to manipulate the components of all three of those to maximize their return.”

Others, like co-owner of OregonFAST.net George Rogato, have a more optimistic outlook.

“I’m not really worried about it,” he said.

Rogato believes it’s possible to retain an open internet without all the regulatory baggage of the Title II classification.

“It’s maybe a bumpy experience. There’ll be something that will happen that will cause a lawsuit between the content providers and a carrier,” he said, adding, “It’ll get solved.”

Robbie Wright, CEO of Siuslaw Broadband, predicts negligible affects, at least for a time.

“It will not have any effect on direct ISP consumers for years,” said Wright. “ISPs are looking to provide the best value with the highest margins to consumers as possible and will try and find ways to maximize those two things.”

Debate surrounding the principles of an “open internet” has its roots in the 1990s, but it wasn’t until 2008 that the FCC made its first proactive move to enforce net neutrality, issuing Comcast a cease-and-desist order for throttling peer-to-peer networks like BitTorrent. The order was eventually denied in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and the next several years saw the FCC and internet providers struggling with how far the commission’s regulatory authority should extend.

A pivotal moment came with a court victory by Verizon in 2014, when the D.C. Circuit Court exempted service providers such as Verizon from FCC net neutrality rules as long as they were not “common carriers,” a classification reserved for public utilities.

A public debate then ensued as the FCC weighed whether to reclassify internet providers as common carriers or institute a tiered system with “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” based on how much a customer paid.

A massive public and even presidential rejection of the tiered system moved the FCC to decide in its landmark 2015 Open Internet Order to classify broadband providers as common carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1934, effectively putting all service providers under FCC regulatory jurisdiction. The order also instituted distinct bans against blocking content, “throttling” traffic and paid prioritization (which can lead to a tiered system) on grounds that “broadband providers hold all the tools necessary to deceive consumers, degrade content, or disfavor the content that they don’t like.”

Last Thursday’s decision marked the latest turning point in what has been an ongoing battle because it guts what net neutrality advocates consider the most important elements of the 2015 order, including the bans on blocking, throttling, paid prioritization and the general conduct rule — which allows the FCC to review and punish discriminatory actions.

The degree of concern for consumers regarding Thursday’s repeal depends on what points of contact they use for the internet. Worries over how their cable line connection at home might be manipulated by ISPs differs from concerns about how mobile service could be tampered with by mobile providers. And, in some cases, the same company may cover both.

Florence residents are relatively lucky in that they have their pick from among large and small providers for their internet needs. Larger providers like Charter Communications (which brands its broadband service as Spectrum) and CenturyLink, offer fixed (cable or DSL) service to most of the city. On the other hand, smaller local ISPs such as OregonFAST.net and Siuslaw Broadband provide a combination of fixed wireless and fiber optics to the greater Florence area.

Florence’s biggest internet providers, CenturyLink and Spectrum, have downplayed concerns prior to Thursday’s FCC vote.

John Jones, CenturyLink’s Senior Vice President of Public Policy and Government Relations, on July 12 blogged his support of keeping the internet “open and free — without regulation.”

Jones welcomes the roll back, arguing that a less regulated market will bring more companies and thus more consumer choice. A heavily regulated market, he says, stymies infrastructure investment, particularly in rural communities.

“I don’t buy any of that,” said Rogato.

His business has invested heavily into expanding and upgrading his own infrastructure of hundreds of access points in Florence.

“It is painful for little companies. But these large companies — their profits are in the billions. They’ve got the money,” he said.

Rogato added that the technology and its affordability are only getting better.

“The price of equipment is going down, down, down and the capacity is going up, up, up,” he said.

Siuslaw Broadband, too, has infrastructure pursuits in Florence, including gigabit fiber.

Wright takes CenturyLink’s point.

“There is truth to both sides of this, unfortunately,” he said. “More regulations by nature decrease innovative spending. The harder it is to perform a task due to excessive regulations, the less likely any person or company will do it.”

For Charter Spectrum’s part, the company has had a well-disposed relationship with its net neutrality commitments in the past, even as CEO Tom Rutledge in an April press release embraced the FCC rollback as “a welcome and necessary step” toward change.

In 2016, Charter voluntarily committed to a generous list of net neutrality principles as a condition of its acquisition of Time Warner Cable. Time Warner Cable itself, however, is currently being sued by New York’s Attorney General Eric Schneiderman on grounds that it throttled its customers’ access to Netflix. Though the alleged misbehavior occurred before the merger, Charter remains bound to the legal scandal. In addition, Charter’s merger-based commitment to net neutrality has a 3-year expiration date, leaving only speculation as to what approach it will take when that commitment expires in 2019 — or what effect Thursday’s repeal may have in the near future.

Florence’s local ISPs, OregonFAST.net and Siuslaw Broadband, have the good fortune of not being embroiled in the drama of national players and can watch the debate unfold from relatively unaffected sidelines.

Wright feels community connections are part of the small-town advantage.

“Our staff has kids in the school district, coaches local sports teams, goes to your church and shops at the same grocery store,” he said.

One clear challenge to smaller ISPs, though, is eating the cost of bandwidth-hungry content providers. Year upon year, streaming sites especially have contributed to a perpetually rising bandwidth requirement; and the effort by internet providers to upgrade networks has been costly.

“It has cost us money and we think the content providers should’ve contributed toward that in some way,” said Rogato. “But on the other hand, the other argument is, well … let’s say they have to pay us $1 per user per month. The customer would have to pay that.”

Net neutrality advocates argue that defining ISPs as common carriers does away with that problem, but Rogato doesn’t believe it’s useful to think of the internet “… like streets and highways, owned by the public. There needs to be competition because streets don’t change, but the internet does,” he said. “One of the misconceptions they keep saying is that ISPs are going to slow down your traffic, but we don’t mess with anybody’s stuff. We’re the little guys. … That stuff doesn’t hit home to us.

“The only time I would go in and limit someone’s bandwidth is if they get some kind of virus there,” Rogato added.

Fears that internet providers are looking to create a tiered system are also unfounded, according to Rogato.

“They’re making a big deal about it,” he said. “It’s all something that comes from a misunderstanding.”

If one company behaves badly toward its customers, Rogato believes people will switch to another.

“The free, open market always repairs itself. I believe that. It really does,” he said.

Wright acknowledges there are some valid concerns about a tiered internet.

“The manner in which it has been discussed is flawed,” he said. “The internet is a ‘network of networks.’ We own our network. We can connect it to whomever I want. I’m selling an internet service, though, so if I wasn’t connected to the entire internet, I would have lots of unhappy customers.”

Wright points out there can be several network connections between the ISP and a content provider like Netflix.

“If we were so inclined, we could get a connection directly to Netflix,” he said. “However, this comes at a price, both in monetary terms and in time and complexity.”

While bigger companies may decide to make that investment, smaller ISPs must carefully weigh the cost and benefit.

“In reality, the difference in these two scenarios is only single-digit milliseconds, so the performance gain isn’t great,” he said.

Giving consumers a choice among their providers can empower individuals to vote with their wallets and choose the ISPs that provide the best experience, but Wright doesn’t believe classifying ISPs as a public utility will help with this.

“If you want the proverbial ‘dumb pipe’ and one choice of internet providers, then yes, being regulated as a public utility would work,” he said. “If you want ISPs to push the limits of the technology, dramatically increase speed and performance and help push technology forward, then no.”

The biggest mobile network providers to Florence — AT&T and Verizon — have echoed large cable company sentiments in their simultaneous support for open internet and little regulation.

Mobile provider AT&T on its website plainly states, “We support an open internet,” but directly underneath rejects the 2015 FCC order as an “80-year-old statute.”

However, proprietary content on mobile devices adds another layer of concern.

AT&T agitated net neutrality groups in 2012 when it limited the use of iPhone’s pre-installed service FaceTime on its cellular networks. FaceTime, which provides free video chatting among iPhone users, was restricted to customers who joined AT&T’s “Mobile Share” data plan or could find WiFi — a move iPhone users considered akin to holding FaceTime hostage.

As one commenter lamented on technology website Ars Technica, “I should be able to use any app that isn’t illegal and use my bandwidth with any app.”

While AT&T denied this violated net neutrality rules, it eventually acquiesced to demands in 2013 and removed the limitations. This event was cited in the FCC’s 2015 Open Internet Order, and it remains to be discovered whether other voice or texting apps will suffer similar discrimination if they compete with a carrier’s options.

Brandon O’Connor, Store Manager at AT&T’s Florence Branch, admits some uncertainty as to what the FCC vote will bring for mobile users.

“There’s too much unknown at this point, especially with my company,” he said. “It’s really hard to say what they’re gonna do based on the [FCC] decision.”

Verizon, meanwhile, also claims support for an open internet and said it welcomes the repeal of its Title II designation. For Verizon, though, the fact that the current FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai, is a former Verizon legal counsel led to storefront protests and online activism. Adding to suspicions was Verizon’s 2012 agreement to pay $1.25 million to end an FCC investigation into its attempts to block users from accessing “tethering” apps, which allow users to link their internet connection to other devices and thus avoid extra data fees.

It’s well-remembered among net neutrality advocates, too, that Verizon’s lawsuit against the FCC in 2014 set into motion the reclassification of all ISPs to common carriers in the first place.

Ultimately, guarantees as to the state of the internet ecosystem going forward are sparse, and if past misbehavior by corporations is any indication of what is to come, there may be something to net neutrality proponents’ misgivings.

Consumers of Android phones, for example, may remember that Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile shut out Google Wallet from their devices until 2015, in large part due to their co-investment in a competing payment app. Prioritization of this sort is an extra hurdle for start-ups and content providers that want to enter the market, and it falls short of expectations for consumers who demand access to a variety of content. It remains to be seen if problems like this will become par for the course.

While consumer choice for broadband service in Florence is hardly the victim of monopoly, this is little comfort to those who expect a higher standard of options.

“The internet is increasingly important in almost every aspect of personal life,” said Dawson. “The way to maximize our ability to use this tool is to make sure the information isn’t throttled.”

Internet heavyweights such as Amazon and Facebook have established themselves as front-liners in the battle to protect consumer and content provider access to the internet. Online movements such as battleforthenet.com offer outlets and resources for those wanting to get involved. With so many players in the game, it’s no wonder many people hold an outlook that is, at best, murky.

“All these rules can change,” said Rogato. “Today the powers that are in office can do this, that, change rules. Four years later, they could turn the other way.”

Wright entertains two possibilities moving forward: “A flash in the pan that everyone moves on from quickly, or someone in Congress proposes a bill that overrules the FCC,” he said. “That will be an even greater fight on both sides.”

The uncertainty of how this three-dimensional game of chess will play out propels some to man the ramparts of internet freedom while leaving others disimpassioned enough to let the pieces fall where they may. Whatever the case, it remains clear the debate is far from over.

“The public will have to be perpetually vigilant on this, I think,” said Dawson.

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