Net neutrality advocates learned on Monday morning that the most powerful man in the world is now their ally. Consumer ISPs, not so much.
President Barack Obama officially weighed in for the first time on the controversial matter, releasing a video through www.whitehouse.gov. In it, he lays out his administration’s position that consumer broadband services should be reclassified as a public utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would put them in the same category as telephone services.
In doing so, Obama has aligned himself with those who favor a free and open internet, devoid of any “fast lanes” or other implementations which would allow companies to pay for premium bandwidth, thus giving them an advantage over their competitors. Such was the sentiment in the overwhelming majority of the 3.7 million comments that were made on the FCC’s website (minus the time that John Oliver crashed it), but it’s unclear as of now just how much difference any of it will make.
While the president named all five members of the FCC board, it remains an independent agency, which means that Obama can “urge” them all he wants; he doesn’t have the power to order them to do anything. That being said, this is undoubtedly the most high-profile input that has been made on the issue, and Chairman Tom Wheeler would likely be influenced more by the Obama administration’s opinion than that of the general public.
It is worth noting, however, that President Obama deserves some credit for including mobile internet usage as part of his plan, something that FCC conspicuously omitted from the initial proposal that they released back in May.
There are certainly complications that could arise from reclassifying the internet as public utility, even though it basically operates as one now. Doing so officially would also mean that it would be subject to the same regulations and standards that were written for telephone networks, which obviously are outdated and irrelevant to broadband networks. Net neutrality proponents insist that the FCC can bypass any extraneous regulations through the power of forbearance that they were given when the Telecommunications Act was first passed in 1996, but there could be some hiccups along the way.
As I’ve said before, net neutrality is an extremely important issue, but it’s not as cut and dried as those on both sides would have you believe. While a free and open internet is a great idea, those advocating so strongly for it might not be aware of the cost that will get passed down to them.
The fact of the matter is that we all have to operate off of the same infrastructure that has a finite amount of bandwidth. As that infrastructure encounters capacity issues due to increased use of streaming and photo sharing services like Netflix, YouTube, and Facebook, ISPs will have to pay a lot of money to upgrade the infrastructure. If they can’t charge the companies who use them, that cost will get passed on to their subscribers.
That might be the best possible way to resolve the issue, especially if ISPs can figure out how to accurately charge people for their home internet access based on their data usage, much like we do for our electrical and gas utilities.
However, it could also mean the end of the days of unlimited internet. In addition to the cost of the expanded cables for delivery, the data itself comes with a price. Electric and gas companies don’t offer limitless plans to their customers, and the government can’t reasonably expect internet service providers to do so either.
Despite the amount of publicity that Obama’s foray into the proceedings has generated, we’re still unlikely to get any ruling from the FCC before the end of the year. And with the amount of complications that will inevitably arise, it’s easy to see why it’s taking so long.