Monday, November 10, 2014

Common carrier universal service obligation -- not net neutrality – primary reason for incumbent telephone and cableco opposition to FCC Title II enforcement

Threats by the legacy incumbent telephone and cable companies to sue the U.S. Federal Communications Commission if it acts to enforce Title II of the Communications Act aren’t solely motivated by net neutrality. President Obama and other net neutrality supporters look to enforcement of Section 202 of the statute that bars “discrimination in charges, practices, classifications, regulations, facilities, or services...” Net neutrality supporters maintain enforcement of this provision will prohibit telephone and cable companies (and other ISPs) from creating “fast lanes” to speed traffic from users like Netflix to its subscribers. They also argue enforcement would similarly bar ISPs from charging consumers more to access selected websites, for example.

The primary reason the big incumbents are gearing up for possible litigation against the federal government isn’t net neutrality. Rather, it’s two words in Title II: common carrier. The incumbents don’t want to be classified as common carriers. Why not? Because Section 254(b) of the Communications Act requires common carriers to provide access to advanced telecommunications and information services (i.e. Internet service) in all regions of the nation. Section 202 of the law also contains an anti-redlining provision barring providers from discriminating against localities in providing service. That means they’d have to serve all premises in their service territories and not just selected neighborhoods, roads and streets. That would obligate the incumbents to invest billions to connect the approximately one in five premises they have opted to leave unconnected to the Internet.

That doesn’t jibe with their business models because those customers tend to be located in less densely populated areas that are less likely to generate a quick return on the investment in infrastructure needed to serve them. In addition, Section 214(e)(3) empowers the FCC to "determine which common carrier or carriers are best able to provide such service to the requesting unserved community or portion thereof and shall order such carrier or carriers to provide such service for that unserved community or portion thereof."

It could be the policy environment on Internet regulation has reached a tipping point. Oftentimes it takes just a single, well publicized incident to create the final push toward change. The previous post on the sad plight of an upstate New York family being asked to pay more than $20,000 to get their home connected to the Internet might be one of those proverbial straws that brought us to that point

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