Policy fights often take bizarre directions. You might remember the furor seven years ago when the FCC under Chairman Tom Wheeler was contemplating imposing net neutrality. There were over 22 million public comments filed in the case. There was a big controversy when some of those against net neutrality filed bulk comments labeled as being from people who knew nothing about the comments, including several politicians.
I’m not entirely sure why the public got so stirred over the topic, because up until that time, there had been only a few blatant cases where ISPs had violated the net neutrality principles, with the most common being something the public largely favored – ISPS giving free access to a video service for buying broadband.
The big ISPs all lobbied hard against the net neutrality rules, but the CEO of every big ISP was on the record at least once saying that the net neutrality rules were not a big deal and that they could live with net neutrality. So why did the big carriers lobby so hard about what the FCC was doing?
The answer is that the carriers were far more worried about the FCC’s regulations that came along with FCC’s planned net neutrality rules. The FCC under Tom Wheeler was planning on strengthening the Title II regulatory policies that gave the FCC the right to regulate ISPs. The real fear that ISPs had was that the FCC would eventually use Title II authority to impose rate regulation on broadband. I think in hindsight that the big ISPs seven years ago already had long-term plans to migrate broadband rates as high as possible. Today we’re seeing the big cable companies starting to narrow in on basic broadband rates of $100 per month.
But the big ISPs couldn’t publicly lobby against rate regulation and Title II. The ISPs would have had a hard time convincing folks to file comments against controlling ISPs rates. The big ISPs would have had to argue that ISPs don’t need to be regulated – something the public would clearly and strongly disagree with. Most broadband customers of the big ISPs had at least one story of when they had an uncomfortable interaction with their ISP. The big ISPs were so unpopular at the time that they had the lowest ranking of all industries on surveys of how people rank U.S. corporations.
The big ISPs certainly could not have publicly told the truth and said that the only squabble with net neutrality rules was the risk of being told that rates are too expensive. That would be a public argument that even public allies of the big ISPs would have shied away from.
Seven years ago, the big ISPs pulled out all stops to lobby against net neutrality, although all they really cared about was the ability of some future FCC to tell them to stop raising rates. The big ISPs lost that battle in the Wheeler FCC, which everybody expected – because the FCC at the time had a Democrat majority.
The big ISPs didn’t have to wait long to get what they wanted after Donald Trump unexpectedly won the presidency. He promoted Ajit Pai to head the FCC, and his first order of business was to completely dismantle Title II regulation. This was again framed by the big ISPs as eliminating unneeded net neutrality rules – but the real issue that still was never said out loud was the goal of eliminating the threat of rate regulation.
Now that Democrats are back in charge of the White House, the whole issue has surfaced again. The big ISPs have been trying to derail or delay confirmation of Gigi Sohn as the fifth FCC Commissioner because they know that one of the first actions of the FCC under Chairman Jessica Rosenworcel will be to reintroduce Title II regulation.
I’ve seen a lot of pro-ISP articles lately talking about how net neutrality was an empty issue and how there have been no bad consequences from killing net neutrality. That may be largely true other than a few ugly examples like Verizon disconnecting firefighters battling forest fires.
But the lack of a threat of rate regulation has allowed big ISPs to raise rates with impunity. In the last five years, we’ve seen Comcast and Charter regularly raise broadband rates. Comcast rates are now north of $90, and after a series of $5 rate increases, Charter is not far behind. Other big cable companies like Cox and Atlantic Broadband charge even more than the big two. The public is currently complaining about inflation due to supply chain issues, but the cable companies have been busy raising broadband rates at a pace that far outstrips inflation.
In the recent confirmation hearing, Gigi Sohn said she was not in favor of rate regulation. I’m positive we’ll never hear the big ISPs publicly ask that question again because it will remind people about the impact of broadband on their pocketbooks. But I think we need to brace for another gigantic lobbying effort against rate regulation – disguised as arguments against net neutrality again.