ISPs Have Their Own Definition of Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Ajit Pai (Rob Kunzig/Morning Consult)

Internet service providers have been among the fiercest critics of the Federal Communications Commission’s two-year-old net neutrality rules aimed at preventing companies like Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. from dictating how fast — or slow — online content can be accessed.

That doesn’t mean ISPs oppose net neutrality — they just have a different definition for it, Comcast Senior Executive Vice President David Cohen said Wednesday during a panel discussion in Washington. Cohen endorsed the recent FCC move that begins reversing Obama-era rules that classified the internet as a “utility” under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934.

“Getting rid of Title II does not mean getting rid of net neutrality,” Cohen said at Free State Foundation’s telecommunications policy conference. “You can support net neutrality rules, but you don’t have to do that under all of the baggage that comes with Title II.”

That approach is shared by FCC Chairman Ajit Pai, who warned at Wednesday’s conference about market uncertainty due to Title II classification. Pai said the rules — known as the Open Internet order — stifle telecom investments in expanding and improving broadband services.

“They need to know that the rules aren’t going to change based on who had what for breakfast,” Pai said.

Broadband providers contend that under the current rules, ISPs will eventually be regulated like utilities.

Robert W. Quinn Jr., AT&T Inc.’s senior executive vice president for external and legislative affairs, said at the conference that the industry was told during the Obama administration that “there wouldn’t be rate regulation, but it was just a matter of time before we saw rate regulation.”

“We saw movement toward limiting free data,” he added.

Quinn was referring to “zero rating” programs in which ISPs don’t charge customers for data used on video streaming services that they own, such as T-Mobile’s Binge On. Many net neutrality advocates consider that practice a violation of the principle of equal internet access because it gives preferential treatment to one service over another competing service. Shortly after the Open Internet order was issued, advocates note, then-FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler called for an investigation of such practices.

Meredith Attwell Baker, president and chief executive of the Cellular and Telecommunications Industry Association, echoed the need for marketplace predictability by calling for legislation.

“I’m optimistic that we’re closer to coming up with rules we can all agree on and hopefully we can get Congress to enact these rules so we can stop the ping-ponging” between administrations, Baker said at Wednesday’s conference.

Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R-S.D.) has said that one of his priorities for the 115th Congress is drafting bipartisan legislation that would codify certain principles that base the idea of net neutrality into law, such as the prohibition of paid prioritization and blocking and throttling online content.

But Cohen and others at the conference voiced discomfort with outright banning of paid prioritization as part of a net neutrality effort. In response to a question about barriers to a potential compromise, Cohen said “there’s disagreement about paid prioritization.”