President Obama made news in November when he took a clear stance on the net neutrality issue. He delivered a strong endorsement for stronger regulations of telecoms, stating that such rules were necessary for protecting an open Internet that is "…essential to the American economy, and increasingly to our very way of life," according to USA Today. Despite the President's support for reform, Tom Wheeler and the Federal Communications Commission are resolving the issue at a measured pace. This strategy is likely for the benefit of consumers, as the many nuances of net neutrality could turn a rash decision into a deluge of court battles. The final decision will determine the kind of options that consumers have from their cable and Internet providers, and a closer look at the ingredients brewing in the net neutrality debate elucidates why a steady-handed approach by the FCC may be the best one.
Wheeler dodges a hard timeline
Net neutrality proponents identified President Obama's endorsement as a shift in momentum, confident that the words of the Commander-in-Chief would coax the FCC in action. When pressed by reporters in late November, however, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler responded by explaining that no hard timeline for an decision was in the works, said PCWorld. Wheeler also noted that a string of lawsuits from telecoms resisting the new decisions is inevitable regardless of which reforms are passed, so it is the best interest of net neutrality fans that the FCC takes its time. In fact, Verizon pressed the U.S. Appeals court to neutralize net neutrality reforms from 2010 just a few months ago.
PCWorld reported that the FCC will be meeting to discuss net neutrality strategies on Dec. 11, but that no policy decisions will be made during that time. It is likely that the meeting will revolve around how reforms might roll-out in 2015. The delay will also provide more space for the debate to evolve, and for more Americans to communicate their views on the future of the Internet. Millions of Americans have already expressed their views on net neutrality on the FCC's comment page.
No such thing as a free Net
One of the main questions steering the net neutrality debate is whether or not to reclassify the Internet as a Title II utility. Proponents argue that doing so will provide the FCC with the authority it needs to regulate Internet Service Providers and prevent tiered pricing schemes from downgrading the quality of the average consumer's Internet connection. Ideally, the extra regulation would also incentivize ISP's to invest in the infrastructure of broadband, much like phone companies of the past who laid out the foundation of the country's extensive copper network. However, this policy shift would also introduce federal taxes on the Internet, reported TechCrunch.
A Progressive Policy Institute study revealed the potential tax burden that retitling broadband under Title II would levy on Americans. As a result, consumers could wind up investing $15 billion in Internet infrastructure each year through new fees. The introduction of a new taxes is a historically powerful barrier against new legislation, and may be even more when the incoming Congressional majority takes the reigns of the House and the Senate. Thankfully, the FCC's delay in making a firm decision about net neutrality reform will provide more time for the tax burden associated with net neutrality to receive greater research and attention from news outlets.
The FCC plays trust buster
A closer look at the net neutrality issue reveals that the heart of the problem is tied closer to economic pressures than technological ones. In a fiercely competitive market, telecoms would be driven to develop new features and invest in infrastructure as a means of keeping pace with rival companies. Since 1996, when regulations for telecoms were most recently drafted, the number of Internet options available to most consumers has dwindled to one. Much of this trend has been caused by the FCC's historically lax attitude toward regulating the merging of major telecoms and subsequent creation of monopolies.
While the number of Internet companies has gone down, the amount of Internet users and need for capacity has exploded. More and more computer users will soon be downloading dozens of ultra-high definition movies at gigabit speeds, escalating the bandwidth needs of the Internet to untold heights and making new fiber rollouts absolutely essential. The Washington Post argued that instead of passing regulations, the U.S. government should focus on incentivizing cable companies to invest in more fiber installations – precedent suggests that major telecoms will have the financial means to circumvent any meaningful regulation that the FCC may pass in 2015. Regardless, the reclassification of broadband would help slow the unfettered consolidation of telecom giants and reaffirm the Internet as one of the digital era's basic human rights.