(TNS) — A battle over online access is roiling an industry that includes Connecticut’s top internet companies.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai has proposed getting rid of “net neutrality” rules instituted during the Obama administration that play a pivotal role in regulating how broadband providers deliver and charge for content.
As a major vote on Pai’s proposal by the FCC looms this week, millions of online comments have poured into the FCC. The debate pits proponents of the changes, such as Charter Communications and Frontier Communications, who see the changes as responding to market realities, against critics who fear that an overhaul could embolden telecommunications companies to restrict content and relegate customers who are not willing or able to pay more to second-rate service.
“Information is power, and everybody needs access to information,” said Ramesh Subramanian, a professor of information systems at Quinnipiac University and a fellow at the Yale Information Society Project. “If the system changes, are the internet service providers willing to guarantee equal access to information for everybody?”
The 2015 rules for net neutrality — a term coined in 2002 by law professor and author Tim Wu — increased government oversight of broadband activity. Internet providers would be treated in many ways like public utilities and be barred from blocking or slowing rivals’ content. The regulations also established “open-internet” safeguards to wireless services for mobile devices.
But changes have loomed since President Donald Trump picked Pai, a Republican, to lead the FCC. His proposal to do away with the current system is seen as likely to pass at the FCC’s meeting Thursday because the GOP now commands a majority on the commission.
“We will move from heavy-handed regulation to light-touch regulation — not a completely hands-off approach,” Pai said last week in a speech at a telecommunications and media forum of the International Institute of Communications, in Washington, D.C. “We won’t be giving anybody a free pass, we will simply shift from one-size-fits-all, preemptive regulation to targeted enforcement based on actual market failure or anticompetitive conduct.”
Net neutrality supporters counter that the current framework compels large internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally and protect free speech. Among other arguments, they say many firms could risk content slowdowns or additional charges for unobstructed broadband access.
“Net neutrality is essential to an open and free internet,” U.S. Sen. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, said in an interview last week. “It guarantees equal access no matter who owns the platform, and it is essential not only to free speech but also innovation. If the internet service providers are able to block or overprice access to the public, it will mean higher prices for consumers, less innovation and new products — all kind of harms that could be prevented.”
Among local officials, Stamford Mayor David Martin joined an open letter by 58 mayors and county officials across the country opposing the net neutrality rollback.
Stamford-based Charter and Norwalk-based Frontier have expressed support for the prospective changes.
They maintain that their millions of internet customers would not lose out if the current system were dismantled. In a statement, Charter said it does not block or throttle content, enact usage-based billing or charge modem or early-termination fees, to support customers getting their preferred content.
“We support the FCC returning to the light-touch regulatory framework in place for more than two decades that allowed the online ecosystem to take root and keep up with the speed of innovation,” the statement said.
The company also said that the 1934 Communications Act’s Title II, which was widely viewed as the legal underpinning for net neutrality, was “written for the monopoly phone service in the 1930s, is simply not designed to provide consumers, and especially those living in rural and hard to serve areas, with a 21st-century broadband.”
In their own statement, Frontier officials similarly said the prospective changes would not affect their service.
“Frontier does not block or throttle customer access to content, and Frontier supports sharing transparent information about its services,” the statement said. “The changes being proposed by the FCC will not change that.”
But Charter and Frontier have not directly answered whether the demise of net neutrality would usher in a new era in which broadband quality is based on what customers pay.
“Broadband companies’ position has historically been that net neutrality is unnecessary and that having it would take away one of their options to serve customers better,” said David Souder, associate dean of graduate programs in the University of Connecticut’s business school. “It’s similar to the idea that on an airplane you have first-class seats and everybody else, and you pay more for first class and that allows airlines to charge lower costs everywhere else. Net neutrality took away their away ability to have ‘first-class’ seats.”
But some experts wonder whether the broadband companies would live up to their promises.
“On the one hand, they say they have a long-standing commitment to open internet and won’t block or throttle content,” Subramanian said. “On the other hand, the fact that they seem to attack Title II, which actually says you should provide equal services and the same kind of access to everyone, leads me to believe they’re not totally sincere in this.”
If the FCC moves ahead with disbanding the net neutrality status quo, the opposition would not likely dissipate. Many groups are already weighing litigation. Blumenthal said he would not back down, either.
“My fight against the FCC’s proposed repeal of this essential consumer principle will continue,” Blumenthal said. “It will be intensified and increased. I will begin legislative action, but there’s no guarantee of the outcome given the majorities that Republicans have in both houses of Congress.”
©2017 The Advocate (Stamford, Conn.) Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.