Net neutrality debate ramps up as FCC prepares for February vote

Internet customers may soon see the laws that regulate their broadband service go through some very significant changes. The Federal Communication Commission will be meeting to vote on its net neutrality plans in February, meaning that by the end of 2015, Internet service providers might be subject to the same regulations as other telecom utilities. Internet and cable providers have been openly resistant to this policy shift, but a wide range of supporters from big-name content providers like Netflix to President Barack Obama himself have put strong momentum behind the Open Internet. With the vote around the corner, consumers can get a better idea of which direction the wind seems to be blowing by examining the most recent events that are likely to impact the FCC's decision in February.

Wheeler expresses strong support of Open Internet at CES
Perhaps one of the most telling signs of the FCC's intentions come from the mouth of chairman Tom Wheeler, according to Politico, at the International Consumer Electronics Show. On numerous occasions, Wheeler expressed his thinly veiled interest in reclassification of broadband. The chairman's posturing puts him in synch with the President, who gave an open endorsement of the Open Internet near the end of 2014. Many commentators suspected that the President's speech would put Wheeler in an unfavorable position, but he has responded to the pressure by ensuring interviewers that he had considered reclassification strategies as early as last summer. Wheeler's comments at CES also revealed that while the chairman is not opposed to legislative support for the Open Internet, the FCC will make its decision in February regardless of where congressional Democrats and Republicans are with their own plans for net neutrality.

Precedent in place to support the Title II reclassification
New pundits and FCC representatives have openly admitted that a legislative battle with cable and Internet providers is a foregone conclusion, as these companies reflexively resist scenarios that might put them under stricter regulation. One of the reasons that the FCC put off the net neutrality decision for so long was for more time to establish a formidable legal strategy before putting its reclassification plan on the table. Supporters of the Open Internet are optimistic thanks to two pieces of precedent in their favor.

First, attempts in 2010 by the FCC provided essential feedback from the very courts that are likely to decide how Wheeler's new reclassification plan will pan out, according to PCWorld. In the past, net neutrality laws were overturned by the courts because they too closely mimicked the controls that the FCC had over other telecoms without initially establishing that broadband was to become a Title II utility. Furthermore, the judges from the decision pointed out legal strategies already within the current Telecommunications Act that could be used to further support a reclassification of broadband.

Another precedent that stands in favor of reclassification is more closely related to business than politics. According to The Motley Fool, Chairman Wheeler noted that wireless phones have operated under Title II classification for years, with no detriment to the profitability for retailers, or loss of service quality to phone customers. He argued that if reclassification is done in the right way, there should be no conflict between incentivizing businesses and protecting customers. Chairman Wheeler has referred to the FCC's approach multiple times as what he hopes will be a "golden standard" for how the Internet is organized and operated. If these new rules are approved, then consumers may soon see special deals and new service offerings from their cable networks, brought upon by new competition from Internet TV and other streaming services.

Congress may move in to support or supersede an FCC decision
Cord-cutters and fans of streaming television can take a breather. Even if the FCC puts off its February voting date, multiple figures in Congress have taken an interest in solidifying the Open Internet through legislation. Most notably, Senate Commerce Committee chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) and committee member Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) are working on a bi-partisan net neutrality bill that would help to set restrictions on telecoms without necessarily transforming broadband into a utility, said CNET. Though there is no guarantee that such legislation would clear both houses and land on the president's desk, the direct support the net neutrality movement has received in congress is encouraging for Open Internet supporters.

Currently, Democrats in the Senate have also revived the Online Consumer and Choice Act, which would officially outlaw the creation of Internet fast lanes by telecom companies. A selection of carefully worded laws like these could be used to effectively regulate cable and Internet providers by actually reclassifying broadband as a Title II utility.

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