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Catching up on net neutrality: what happens next?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

The debate over net neutrality has been simmering on a low flame for more than a decade, but over the past year, the conversation has started to boil. Now that we're mere days away from the FCC voting on the newest version of a net neutrality proposal, the heat is turned up - but this time it's the ISPs and the right-wingers feeling the burn, while proponents of an open Internet can potentially breathe a sigh of relief.

The new proposal, announced by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, seeks to reclassify high-speed Internet as a telecommunications service, rather than as an information service, bringing it under Title II of the Communications Act. In this legal framework, high-speed Internet would essentially be treated as a public utility, which is how so many of us have come to know and use it, and what net neutrality advocates have been arguing for.

Your money is no good here

Under the reclassification, broadband providers would have to face the strict prohibitions they've been dreading. They'll be forbidden from blocking traffic, throttling, and creating "fast lanes." ISPs won't be able to charge "edge providers," a.k.a. site content creators for access to higher-speed zones, just as edge providers won't be able to buy their way to the top - paying a price that ultimately would fall in the consumer's lap, probably veiled in some hidden fees section of the monthly bill.

In an op-ed for Wired, Wheeler did a pretty good job of explaining the importance of preserving the Internet "as an open platform for innovation and free expression." One of his more compelling arguments pointed to the fact that the Internet as we know it wouldn't exist had it not been for the FCC stepping in and applying rules to a monopoly-bent AT&T way back when.

"The Internet wouldn't have emerged as it did, for instance, if the FCC hadn't mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s," Wheeler wrote. "Before then, AT&T prohibited anyone from attaching non-AT&T equipment to the network. The modems that enabled the Internet were usable only because the FCC required the network to be open."

Let the lawsuits begin…

Not surprisingly, AT&T is among the first corporations in line to sue the FCC should its new proposal be voted upon.

"There will be litigation," Randall Stephenson, Chairman and Chief of AT&T said in an interview with CNBC.

Hank Hultquist, Federal Regulatory VP at AT&T took to AT&T's Public Policy Blog to share AT&T's "Title II Closing Arguments" and explain its two new filings against the FCC's proposed reclassification. The first filing argues that the Internet can't be qualified as a telecom service because, when it comes to ISP's abilities to block, throttle, and prioritize traffic, they're operating as information services and thus the Internet should be classified as information services under Title 1. The second letter accuses the FCC of reaching a decision without going through proper protocol. "The FCC has not engaged in the kind of detailed analysis that would be needed to assess the offerings of every ISP that would be subject to its rule," Hultquist wrote.

AT&T has been antsy about the possibility of a regulation-enforced open Internet for a while. Last November, after Obama sternly declared his support of net neutrality, the company announced it would halt the rollout of its high-speed fiber optic Internet service. Stephenson said that until the FCC developed concrete rules surrounding net neutrality, "[AT&T couldn't] go out and invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities."

When the FCC shot back, asking AT&T to divulge all documentation around its decision, AT&T yielded ever so slightly, saying it wouldn't break any of its existing commitments to rollout its fiber optics solution, it just wouldn't make any new ones.

Verizon is also speaking out against net neutrality, but their position is even more complicated, and frankly, embarrassing. Verizon filed suit against the FCC over the organization's original net neutrality regulations - rules that would have been a lot easier for ISPs to live with, and profit from - and won. Had Verizon quietly gone about its business and not played with FCC fire, it's possible that the new proposal would not have come to light. Instead, Verizon's victory has taken an ironic twist befitting a Greek tragedy. Verizon will likely sue again, despite having its foot in its mouth.

A day after Obama outlined his plan for a free and open Internet, Comcast's EVP David Cohen issued a statement indicating the company's total support of the President's agenda. "Surprise!" reads the headline, "We Agree With The President's Principles On Net Neutrality: Reiterating Our Strong Support For The Open Internet."

The blog post went on to say that Comcast agrees with the President on the banning of blocking, throttling, paid prioritization, and encourages increased transparency. Comcast added that it already adheres to all of these ideas.

But read on past the splashy intro, and you'll find that in fact, as Time's Alex Fitzpatrick points out, there's no agreement between Obama and Comcast when it comes to net neutrality. Cohen says that Comcast believes the Internet should fall under section 706 of the Telecommunications Act, which would give the government less regulatory authority. And as for that humble-brag saying Comcast doesn't believe in or practice paid prioritization? Well, that's not exactly honest. The corporation has already gotten cozy charging Netflix extra for the luxury of higher-speed delivery.