Politics and Net Neutrality

Capitol_domePolitics is always around in our industry but it is mostly out of sight. The big telecom companies maintain hordes of lobbyists to push their interests, but this is mostly done out of the public eye. It’s been a rare thing during my career to see a telecom issue play out big in the news and it’s only happened a few times. I remember a flurry of politics during the passing of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. But I’m not sure many people outside the industry paid a lot of attention to that. I remember some louder politics that same year when they passed the Communications Decency Act that tried to get pornography off the Internet. But for most of my career it has been rare to have politics intersect visibly with the industry.

Our industry makes the news fairly often, but the headlines are usually about things like mergers rather than about politicians debating both sides of a telecom issue. But net neutrality has grown to be an issue that is in the news every week. Net neutrality was political news once before, but it’s very different this time around. In 2011 republicans tried to pass a bill to repeal the FCC’s net neutrality rules. But that bill never got a lot of traction and nobody outside of the industry probably even heard about it.

All of a sudden net neutrality is being discussed everywhere. It’s even made it into popular culture. Stephen Colbert and John Stewart both launched into funny diatribes in favor of net neutrality. John Oliver went on a 13-minute rant about net neutrality and got so many people to contact the FCC that it crashed their servers. The advocacy group The Free Press along with 85 other organizations delivered over a million signatures on a petition to the FCC asking then to enforce net neutrality. That’s a lot of signatures and Google shows that only a few other petitions have gotten that many signatures, including one earlier this year in protest of the Russian figure skating judges in the Olympics. This is getting into rarified air in the world of popular culture.

Polls seem to make it clear that the majority of people don’t want the big carriers to mess with the Internet. Yet, perhaps sadly, politicians are weighing in on net neutrality straight down party lines like with so many other issues these days. Earlier this year a number of house republicans sent a petition to the FCC asking them to halt any considerations of imposing net neutrality rules. Last week the democrats in the house and senate proposed bills that would prohibit the FCC from allowing ‘fast lanes’. You can’t look at political news lately without seeing another politician saying something about net neutrality.

I don’t know what to make of all of this. As somebody who works in the industry I generally hope that we are able to work out our own issues in the normal fashion – which is to have the FCC issue a new order and then have the courts decide which parts of the provisions are legal and sustainable. It’s a bit of an awkward system because it often takes a few years between first order and final implementation, but it mostly has been working.

Right now because of the court order overturning the FCC’s original net neutrality order we are operating in a vacuum on the issue. There are no rules in place at the FCC that require or ban most carrier practices in this area. We instead have some vague rumblings from FCC commissioners telling carriers to not do anything too outrageous or they will face some unknown consequences.

Perhaps I should take some solace that we currently have a split House and Senate, each controlled by a different party. This puts net neutrality in political limbo and it is highly unlikely that either party will be able to do anything about the topic from a legislative perspective.

But I am not comforted by that limbo, because my fear is that over the course of a decade or so that each of the parties might have a time where they have enough votes to change the net neutrality rules to their liking. I envision one set of rules being put in place by one party and then those rules overturned when the next party gets into power. What this means in practical terms is that the industry will be in limbo over the topic for a long time, never quite able to trust whatever rules are in place at any given time. And the one thing I have seen in this industry is that uncertainty is a bad thing. Uncertainty in this industry often ends up getting manifested by cutbacks in capital spending in the areas of concern. The last thing we need is for carriers to be worried about making the investments needed to keep the Internet fast. Because if that happens, we all lose and net neutrality won’t be that important if the whole Internet gets impaired.

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