The Federal Communications Commission is set to vote on new rules to enforce net neutrality on Feb. 26 since a federal court struck down its previous rules a year ago. However, the FCC may not get the chance if Congress preempts the vote.
Two weeks ago, draft legislation was introduced in the House and Senate to settle net neutrality questions before the FCC can act. These issues ought to be openly discussed and finally put to rest. However, the draft would not only settle the net neutrality debate but also eviscerate the FCC’s ability to increase competition in the broadband market. As important as net neutrality is, it should not come at the price of strengthening cable companies’ broadband oligopolies.
On Jan. 16, House and Senate Republicans led by Sen. John Thune, R-S.D., and Rep. Fred Upton, R-Mich., released draft text of a bill aimed at settling immediate net neutrality concerns. In a Reuters op-ed, Thune and Upton claim that Congress should create “unambiguous rules … that protect Internet users and can help spur job creation and economic growth.” Yet despite its creators’ intentions, the draft seems poised to thwart these goals.
To be fair, the draft does prohibit internet service providers from blocking sites, throttling connections, and offering paid prioritization of content. However, it also shuts the door on better Internet speeds and more broadband competition in a shockingly small marketplace, preventing Internet users from getting access to better services.
The final provision of the draft removes any “grant of authority” from Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996, under which Congress had instructed the FCC to “accelerate development” of advanced telecom capabilities including broadband by “removing barriers to infrastructure investment and by promoting competition.”
Legal jargon aside, this draft’s modification of the FCC’s duties would severely limit the agency from acting in the interest of more open broadband competition, which is desperately needed. According to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, approximately 80 percent of Americans have at most one option for good (25 Megabits per second) broadband, and as Chairman Wheeler himself stated, “Included in that [percentage] is almost 20 percent who have no service at all!”
Some of the biggest upcoming competition has come from an unexpected source: cities. The lack of competition from broadband providers has resulted in several local governments investing in their own infrastructure, creating municipal broadband networks which increasingly provide faster speeds than private broadband providers. President Obama advocated for the continued development of these municipal networks two weeks ago in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Cedar Falls created a high-speed fiber network for its residents that provides significantly better service than most Americans receive, and it is not alone. Wilson, N.C., Lafayette, La., and Chattanooga, Tenn., all offer Internet speeds between 10 and 100 times as fast as the national average for approximately the same cost. Chattanooga has been nicknamed “Gig City” since it started providing 1 Gigabit per second for less than $70 per month.
Cable companies have been heavily lobbying state governments to restrict municipal networks to limit competition with these more efficient, more effective players. Tennessee is just one of 19 states that have passed laws to impede cities’ ability to build municipal networks or severely limit which customers the services can be offered to.
In the interest of increasing broadband competition and providing superior service to surrounding communities, cities like Chattanooga and Wilson filed petitions last year imploring the FCC to strike down state restrictions under its authority granted by Section 706 — the same section that the draft bill would invalidate.
To their credit, Sens. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Edward Markey (D-Mass.), and Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.) have noted this vulnerability. On Jan. 22 the trio introduced legislation that would strike down those state laws regardless of whether the draft net neutrality bill passes. Yet their Community Broadband Act is, unfortunately, unlikely to succeed. Last year, the House passed a bill reinforcing those same restrictions, and given the new Republican majority in the Senate, the Community Broadband Act has an uphill battle to fight before becoming law. On the other hand, the prospect of a net neutrality compromise measure led by the majority party in both chambers looks like a good bet.
Codifying net neutrality is important because it would preserve the Internet as an open platform for the free exchange of ideas, information, and services. However, the current draft bill unnecessarily binds net neutrality to broadband regulation, presenting a false choice. Prescient legislators must untangle these issues before the draft goes to the floor. Otherwise — in services and in choice — the public will pay.
Keertan Kini is a member of the Class of 2016.