How Much Does Title II Regulation Matter?

We’ve known since January that new FCC Chairman Ajit Pai has intended to somehow roll back net neutrality. And now he’s started the process and says that he wants the Commission to undo regulation of broadband using Title II rules. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and today I ask the question if this rollback means the end of the open Internet as a lot of press would have you believe.

It’s not an easy answer. Let me start with a quick review of the history of Title II regulation. The FCC has wanted to somehow regulate some aspects of broadband for a long time. They took a stab at this back in 2010 that established six principles that became known as net neutrality. But the courts eventually said that the FCC didn’t have the authority to enforce these rules. The court order that reversed the FCC interestingly suggested that they only path they saw to accomplish the FCC’s goals was to invoke Title II regulation.

Title II regulation derives from various acts of Congress that were developed in the last century to regulate telephone companies. When these regulations started back in the 1930s, the primary nationwide telephone provider was Ma Bell (AT&T) and the FCC used the new rules to heavily regulate the company. But those old rules don’t really fit broadband and so in the net neutrality order the FCC chose to invoke only the parts of the old rules that applied to broadband – and that is what made the big ISPs the most nervous. This feared that a future FCC could unilaterally elect to invoke other of the old title II rules, including the ability to regulate rates.

So, in a second try at net neutrality the FCC elected Title II regulation and then layered on some new concepts that are referred as bright line rules, which includes no blocking of broadband traffic, no throttling of content and no paid prioritization of traffic. These are the rules that proponents of net neutrality care about, and so the key question going forward is if the FCC can find some way to enforce the bright line rules if they get rid of Title II authority.

Frankly, it will be hard. If net neutrality is reversed we’ll be back to the regulatory regime that was in place before 2015. The FCC largely regulated broadband for a number of years by pressuring ISPs to be good citizens – but the FCC didn’t have the legal authority to make most things stick. Any time a big ISP didn’t like an FCC directive they knew they could take it to court and win due to lack of FCC authority. Everything I have read suggests that without Title II regulation that we’d back to that same place – where the FCC would have no real authority over most issues affecting broadband.

There is only one path that would codify the bright line rules, and that is if Congress would pass legislation requiring the bright line rules. The whole reason that the FCC has no clear authority over broadband is that numerous Congresses have refused to grant it to them. I can remember at least half a dozen attempts by earlier Congresses to create the needed new rules, but there has never been enough support to pass the laws and to overcome any potential vetoes by presidents.

I certainly don’t have any political crystal ball and I have no idea if this Congress or some future one might tackle this issue with legislation. A faction of the current Congress has been making noise about having a new telecom act, and this could be done as part of that effort. But that doesn’t seem likely from the current Congress. Here at the beginning of their new session they appear to favor big corporations like Comcast and AT&T over the public on these issues. It’s probably worth noting that most smaller ISPs already follow the bright line rules and it’s only a handful of the largest companies that create all of the problems.

The biggest fear of ISPs of all size is that telecom issues have become a political ping-pong ball that will bounce back and forth as we change future administrations or future Congresses. That kind of uncertainly plays havoc with creating new products and policies. I think even the largest ISPs would rather keep net neutrality regulated if the alternative was to see the rules radically changed every few years.

There are market forces that could have some impact on net neutrality. One is competition. For example, if one of the large wireless carriers adopts practices that violate net neutrality and that customers don’t like, then one or more of the other carriers will likely compete by promising products that the public wants.

And the public is likely to to have a big influence on combatting bad ISP behavior. Recall that the FCC received far more comments from the public on the net neutrality docket than anything else they had ever considered. And also remember that it was public outcry that stopped companies like Comcast from imposing draconian data caps. There is not a ton of competition in many broadband markets – but there usually is some. As new wireless products eventually come onto the market there will be even more competition. In this new day of social media we’ve started to see that the public can be stirred up to react in strong ways against big companies that have practices they don’t like. So perhaps an engaged customer base and growing competition will work over time to somewhat keep the big ISPs in line. As an ISP customer I’d much rather have firm regulations in place that prohibit bad ISP behavior – but I guess we’ll have to take whatever we can get.

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