February 25, 2015
Protesters demonstrate across the street from the Comcast Center Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, in Philadelphia. Demonstrators called for further Federal Communications Commission regulation of Internet traffic to support "net neutrality," advocates who want strong government protections for the open Internet. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

Protesters demonstrate across the street from the Comcast Center Monday, Sept. 15, 2014, in Philadelphia. Demonstrators called for further Federal Communications Commission regulation of Internet traffic to support “net neutrality,” advocates who want strong government protections for the open Internet. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

After years of hearings, lawsuits and bickering, you would think there is nothing left to say about the concept known as “net-neutrality.” But this is the time to pay attention.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) will vote on the plan Thursday, the written detailed plan has not been made public and won’t be until after the Thursday vote.

Tom Wheeler

Tom Wheeler

Wednesday, one day before the FCC votes on FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s Net Neutrality proposal, a Congressional subcommittee will hold a hearing that will be a last gasp effort to derail the President and Chairman’s plan.

Though the FCC plan has not been made public, Wheeler outlined the key elements of what he will propose. The commissioners have a copy of the 332 page document but are barred from releasing it. So the gritty details will come out at Thursday’s hearing. The Republicans say it is full of surprises and is worse than they expected. Still, the vote in favor of Wheeler’s plan is a virtual lock.

In general, Wheeler said he will recommend:

  • The commission has to step in and stop broadband network operators (mostly cable companies) from allowing big data users to have a fast-lane to deliver their data.
  • The FCC should consider the Internet as a utility and, as Wheeler writes, “use its Title II authority to implement and enforce open internet protections.”
  • The rules that apply to wired networks’ data delivery should apply to mobile too. No blocking or prioritizing data delivery there either.
  • And this is big, Wheeler recommends, “To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks. For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling.”

What all this means in six questions and answers:

Q1. Will my cable/internet bill go up or down? 

A1. Opponents, and there are some (Republicans, cable companies ) say this will hurt them and so it will hurt you. In effect, they say, the biggest users should pay the most so you, the little guy can pay less. Those who favor “net-neutrality” say consumers benefit because the big guys don’t get treated like first-class users while little guys get slower service. Opponents also say this proposal interferes with business. They say Internet providers should be able to set their own rates and compete in an unregulated marketplace that would ensure lower rates through competition.

Q2. Will my internet speeds be faster?

A2. Probably not. But this is one of the core issues in this matter. Big users, think Netflix and YouTube suck up a lot of bandwidth. The cable companies wanted to allow them to pay for faster delivery service, which would give them priority over people who did not pay the priority rate. Net-neutrality is the concept that everybody’s data packets get passed along at the same speed. Net-neutrality is not a change in what you have now, it is an effort to preserve what you have now from being changed into a system where big data users can pay to get their content moved to the front of the delivery line.

Q3. Does this mean ISPs can’t manage traffic at all?

A3. No. Internet providers have always managed traffic. Video files are sensitive to interruption while emails and text messages, not so much. So when the systems get busy, providers already give videos green lights to prevent glitchy delivery. All of this happens in nanoseconds invisible to you. The Chairman’s proposal would still allow for this “reasonable” data management, just not paid prioritization that would be noticeable.

Q4. What’s up with the whole “treat ISP’s like utilities” concept?

A4. This will be the real news of what happens Thursday. Utilities of course are regulated and taxed. So why would anybody want to regulate and tax the delivery of data? Those who like Net Neutrality say the internet has become a utility like phones. If you use one phone provider you can call somebody using another one and your call sounds and works just like you are on the same service. That’s the main thing this “utilities” would do, make sure nobody gets blocked or prioritized because they are using a different internet provider. The Chairman wants one big, what he calls “modernized” provision however. Under the Chairman’s proposal, ISPs would become utilities under Title II of the Communications Act. Title II requires those it governs to act “in the public interest.” It also says utilities must not “make any unjust or unreasonable discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services.”  (see SEC. 202. [47 U.S.C. 202]).

Q5. But wait, if you call an Internet Service Provider a utility, can’t state and local government tax them and regulate them?

A5. Ah, you have been paying attention. Yes the ISPs claim you could wind up paying billions more in taxes. But the Chairman is recommending “modernizing” the regulations to prevent additional taxes on internet service.

Q6. If ISPs are treated as utilities, who will step in if an Internet provider cheats, lies, steals and advertises fake stuff?

A6. Well, everyone knows that you can say, sell or claim something on the Internet that is fake. But in those extreme circumstances where somebody does, critics like FCC commissioner Ajit Pai say this could be a problem. Pai points out now, the Federal Trade Commission can step in to protect privacy or regulate unfair trade. But the FTC does not have the authority to regulate utilities. So opponents have a concern that the Chairman’s plan could make consumers more vulnerable to fraud.

Q7. So is all of this a done deal?

A7. Far from it.  Thursday the Commission will vote and it will almost certainly approve the Commissioner’s plan. From what we know of it, the Chairman’s plan is more or less the same notion President Obama rolled out.

But it will not be a unanimous vote, mostly likely 3:2 split on party lines. Just last week,  Pai attacked the Chairman’s plan saying it was government trying to take control of the Internet. 

In an op-ed Pai co-wrote he adopts an old Obamacare phrase:

If you like your wireless plan, you should be able to keep it. But new federal regulations may take away your freedom to choose the best broadband plan for you. It’s all part of the federal government’s 332-page plan to regulate the Internet like a public utility — a plan President Barack Obama asked the Federal Communications Commission to implement.

Soon after the vote, ISPs will sue to stop the new rules. And there is always the possibility/probability that Congress will get involved too. Republicans have been squawking about how they think the President got too involved in pressuring the FCC to make the Title II changes.

And, if Congress wanted to, it could pass its own net-neutrality law and that would top anything the FCC does this week.

As a hint of what to expect over the next few days, a group of musicians sent a letter to the FCC chairman Monday promising to publicly support his plan when he comes under attack.

The letter says, in part, “We know that you will face political opposition and coordinated attacks from well-funded corporations. But isn’t it cooler to have us on your side than some giant ISP? We think so. And we’ll step up to defend your plan because we know it’s the right call, and we know you understand the importance of making it.”

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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