FCC’s net neutrality repeal gets strong backing from Arkansas ISPs; consumer groups fear higher broadband charges

by Wesley Brown ([email protected]) 1,182 views 

One day after the Federal Communications Commission rolled back net neutrality rules established during President Barack Obama’s administration, critics are concerned that Internet providers will begin throttling back service as consumers’ appetite for more video and streaming content continues to grow.

By a vote of 3-2 Thursday (Dec. 14), the FCC reversed a rule put in place more than two years ago that prevented broadband companies such as Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, CenturyLink and smaller last-mile ISPs (Internet Service Providers) like Windstream from selling portions of their network at a premium for faster speeds to customers.

In announcing the decision that split along party lines, FCC Chairman Ajit Pai openly mocked the Obama-era regulatory framework that some say has fostered more innovation and growth of modern technologies and expanded Internet access to more consumers.

“Following detailed legal and economic analysis, as well as extensive examination of comments from consumers and stakeholders, the Commission reversed the FCC’s 2015 heavy-handed utility-style regulation of broadband Internet access service, which imposed substantial costs on the entire Internet ecosystem,” said Pai, one of President Donald Trump’s first appointments after he took office this past January.

Pai continued: “In place of that heavy-handed framework, the FCC is returning to the traditional light-touch framework that was in place until 2015. Moreover, the FCC today also adopted robust transparency requirements that will empower consumers as well as facilitate effective government oversight of broadband providers’ conduct.  In particular, the FCC’s action today has restored the jurisdiction of the Federal Trade Commission to act when broadband providers engage in anticompetitive, unfair or deceptive acts or practices.”

But dissenting FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, appointed to the FCC by President Obama in May 2013, called the agency’s order a “fiercely-spun, legally-lightweight, consumer-harming, corporate-enabling destroying Internet freedom order. “

“I dissent, because I am among the millions outraged. Outraged, because the FCC pulls its own teeth, abdicating responsibility to protect the nation’s broadband consumers,” Clyburn said. “Some may ask why we are witnessing such an unprecedented groundswell of public support for keeping the 2015 net neutrality protections in place. Because the public can plainly see, that a soon-to-be-toothless FCC, is handing the keys to the Internet – the Internet, one of the most remarkable, empowering, enabling inventions of our lifetime – over to a handful of multi-billion-dollar corporations.”

The FCC has been steeped in controversy ever since Pai first announced his plans in April to repeal the Obama-era net neutrality rules, often mocking the former president before moving forward with Thursday’s vote despite a public comment period that was tainted by millions of fake comments and thousands of identical bot-posted messages.

Late Thursday, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman announced he would lead a multistate lawsuit to stop the net neutrality repeal.

“Today’s new rule would enable ISPs to charge consumers more to access sites like Facebook and Twitter and give them the leverage to degrade high quality of video streaming until and unless somebody pays them more money. Even worse, today’s vote would enable ISPs to favor certain viewpoints over others,” Schneiderman said. “New Yorkers deserve the right to a free and open Internet. That’s why we will sue to stop the FCC’s illegal rollback of net neutrality.”

In response to a Talk Business & Politics inquiry concerning the decision by the New York AG and other state attorneys general to file a legal challenge to the FCC order, Arkansas Attorney General Leslie Rutledge provided the following statement: “We will continue to review any and all options and will take the best course of action for all Arkansans.”

In Arkansas, nearly all ISPs and wireless providers that offer service in the state were supportive of the FCC’s ruling on Thursday. AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink, Comcast, Windstream, Cox Communications and other smaller rural ISPs have all expanded their networks since that 2015 decision, seeking to keep up with consumers’ increasingly insatiable need for ultra-fast broadband. It powers everything from all-you-can-eat Internet and streaming TV and gaming options, to wireless and landline phone plans and pay-per-view movies and other entertainment choices.

Verizon, the Basking, N.J.-based wireless and telecom giant that famously ridiculed the 2015 decision with a type-written news release using a 1934 dateline, said it was strongly supportive of the FCC’s reversal of the Obama administration’s radical net neutrality rules that put in place a set of rules based on monopoly train and telephone regulations from previous centuries.

“We’re very encouraged by Chairman Pai’s announcement today that the FCC will move forward next month to restore the successful light-touch regulatory framework for internet services,” Verizon said in a statement. “At Verizon, we continue to strongly support net neutrality and the open internet. Our company operates in virtually every segment of the internet. We continue to believe that users should be able to access the internet when, where, and how they choose, and our customers will continue to do so.”

Arkansas’ largest cable operators, Comcast and Cox Communications, also backed the reversal of the FCC’s 2015 open Internet standard, but took extra care to let consumers know they do not plan to throttle service because of Thursday’s ruling.

“We do not block, throttle or otherwise interfere with consumers’ desire to go where they want on the Internet,” Cox spokeswoman Whitney Yoder offered in a statement. “Cox has always been committed to providing an open Internet experience for our customers, and reversing the classification of Internet services does not change our commitment.

“We applaud FCC Chairman Ajit Pai for his leadership that has overturned the previous Commission’s decision to enact Title II, the 1930s-era utility telephone regulations.”

Comcast, which capped data usage for some heavy online users in Arkansas after the 2015 FCC decision, said there is a lot of misinformation.

“It’s important to take a moment, step back, and make clear what is happening here — and what is not happening — and to alleviate any concerns and address how consumers and the Internet will remain fully protected,” said Comcast Chief Diversity Officer David Cohen. “This is not the end of net neutrality. Despite repeated distortions and biased information, as well as misguided, inaccurate attacks from detractors, our Internet service is not going to change. Comcast customers will continue to enjoy all of the benefits of an open Internet today, tomorrow, and in the future. Period.”

AT&T, Arkansas’ largest broadband and wireless provider, blogged on its dedicated net neutrality policy portal that it has consistently provided broadband service in an open and transparent way.

“We do not block websites, nor censor online content, nor throttle or degrade traffic based on the content, nor unfairly discriminate in our treatment of internet traffic,” said Bob Quinn, AT&T executive vice president of external legislative affairs. “These principles, which were laid out in the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet Order and fully supported by AT&T, are clearly articulated on our website and are fully enforceable against us. In short, the Internet will continue to work tomorrow just as it always has.”

Windstream spokesman David Avery also reiterated the stance the Little Rock broadband provider has taken since the net neutrality rules were first unveiled in 2010.

“We support an open Internet and do not block or slow down any Internet traffic such as streaming or web browsing,” he said in a statement. “We stand by our mission to provide a fast, secure and reliable high-speed internet connection to allow our customers to do everything they love on the internet without interference.”

Despite the industry’s dedicated support of Pai and the FCC’s historic edict, several consumer and industry groups fear Verizon, Comcast and other ISPs will soon begin throttling back or charging customers for out-of-network digital entertainment, music and streaming services offered by tech giants like Netflix, Facebook, Google and Amazon.

That caused a wide-range of trade groups, such as the National Association of Realtors, to weigh in on the decision.

“The Internet as we know it today is a fair and open platform that puts everyone on a level playing field,” said NAR President Elizabeth Mendenhall. “FCC’s rollback of the Open Internet Order will mean higher costs and slower service for millions of American consumers and businesses. Realtors have strong concerns about what that might mean for the way consumers search for homes online and real estate is transacted.”