Broadband companies have said net neutrality rules are unnecessary and have made them less willing to invest in their networks © AP
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The biggest US broadband companies have left the door open to sweeping changes in their high-speed internet services, as federal regulators prepare to roll back so-called net neutrality regulations adopted by the Obama administration.
Led by Trump appointee Ajit Pai, the Federal Communications Commission laid the groundwork last month to officially scrap the 2015 rules at a meeting on Thursday. The move will end regulations that were meant to ensure all internet services are treated equally.
Broadband companies have said the rules are unnecessary and have made them less willing to invest in their networks. But net neutrality has strong support in Silicon Valley and among civil liberties groups, which claim it is needed to keep the internet open.
Since the FCC unveiled its deregulation plan last month, some network operators have poured cold water on the warnings and promised not to take any drastic action that would harm online services running over their networks. However, they have been silent on other changes that critics say would indirectly undermine today’s open internet.
Comcast, the largest cable company, on Wednesday reiterated a promise not to block or slow down traffic on its network, and attacked what it called “misinformation that this is the ‘end of the world as we know it’ for the internet”.
That echoed AT&T, which said at the end of last month that “reports of the internet’s impending death are greatly exaggerated”. The biggest US telecoms company said it would not block any services, or “throttle or degrade internet traffic based on content”. On Wednesday it continued to attack what it called “heated and empty rhetoric” about the risk of slower services or higher prices.
Along with other network companies, however, both stopped short of swearing off other arrangements that critics say could have profound changes on the way high-speed networks operate, and turn the open internet into something more like cable systems where customers pay for particular packages of channels.
In particular, the companies have so far left the way open to create new internet “fast lanes”, which would allow them to give preferential treatment to content owners who pay more for a higher level of service. Opponents argue that this practice, known as “paid prioritisation”, would lead to under-investment in the slow lanes that other internet services are consigned to, and particularly hurt disruptive start-ups that couldn’t afford the higher tolls.
Comcast, the only big broadband company to address the issue directly, would only say on Wednesday that it did not use fast lanes, and that it had “no plans” to change. However, it refused to rule out a different policy in future, in pointed contrast to its more forthright promises never to block or throttle traffic.
At Thursday’s meeting the FCC’s five-person commission is expected to approve the order to dismantle the Obama-era rules by a 3-2 vote along party lines.
The broadband companies have also failed to address the question of whether they will give priority to their in-house video services — a practice known as “affiliate preferencing”.
“The order is not yet approved. It makes no sense to conjecture regarding an issue that’s not yet finalised,” a spokesperson for Verizon said on Wednesday.
Under the new regime developed by Mr Pai, broadband companies will only be required to publish their network policies. According to Mr Pai, that will give consumers the chance to change to a different provider if they are unhappy, and leave it to the Federal Trade Commission to police for anti-competitive behaviour.
However, a lack of competition in many parts of the US, particularly in less densely populated areas, has left many consumers with little choice. Around 50m US households have access to only one broadband company offering a high-speed service. Also, critics warn that antitrust laws are a weak replacement for specific regulations, particularly since they are only invoked after consumers have been hurt.
The “take it or leave it” choice faced by most customers leaves them little leverage over their broadband provider, said Allen Hammond, a law professor at Santa Clara University.
As a result, the FCC’s proposals have led to warnings that network companies will use the new freedoms to accelerate their transition from open communications networks to integrated entertainment providers.
“They are moving as fast as they can to become content providers,” said Roger Ison, a Colorado resident who has led an initiative to create a local, city-owned broadband network as an alternative to relying on Comcast.
The FCC has argued that deregulation will lead to higher network investment, improving broadband services. But Mr Ison predicted that the new freedoms to prioritise traffic would lead companies to invest in premium content services for affluent areas, rather than ensuring wide access to a fully open internet.
Meanwhile, AT&T took a swipe on Wednesday at the big internet companies, which have been among the biggest beneficiaries of network neutrality. Joan Marsh, head of regulatory and state external affairs, highlighted Google’s decision last week to withhold its YouTube service from Amazon devices. Pointing to a warning from Sir Tim Berners-Lee, inventor of the Web, that internet companies might end up with too much power to control online content, she said: “He may have been on to something there.”
Thursday’s vote will not be the last word on net neutrality. The decision is likely to trigger legal challenges and, in the absence of action by Congress to create new law, FCC policy is expected to keep changing each time a different party takes the White House.