What's at stake in next month's net neutrality vote

net neutrality
A date with destiny

Two months ago, President Barack Obama made headlines by falling in line with content providers and other net neutrality supporters, and soon federal regulators will decide whether to follow that plan, go their own way or fall somewhere in-between.

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler confirmed this week February 26 vote will take place on an official proposal for net neutrality. The proposal will be circulated to FCC commissioners in less than four weeks.

Unfortunately, Wheeler played coy on which way the vote could go in a public interview with Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) President Gary Shapiro held during CES 2015 in Las Vegas earlier this week.

In the absence of hard data, let's take a closer look at what the FCC has had to say in the wake of Obama's November 2014 announcement and attempt to shed some light on which way the vote could go.

Neutrality for all?

Thanks to a blog post on the official White House website, we already know where President Obama stands on net neutrality: He supports the concept of equal and unrestricted access to the internet for companies of all shapes and sizes, with no preferential treatment for data moving through those pipes.

"We cannot allow internet service providers to restrict the best access or to pick winners and losers in the online marketplace for services and ideas," Obama elaborated on November 10.

Net neutrality

All traffic created equally? (credit: WCTechBlog.com)

To enforce his statement, Obama called on the FCC to step in and reclassify consumer broadband service as a utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would put regulatory power behind internet service provider (ISP) attempts to block, throttle or seek "paid prioritization" for traffic, such as the deals Netflix has cut with Comcast to ensure speedy streaming.

The move would mean internet service would be treated no differently than other utilities such as landline telephone, electricity or gas, which are strictly regulated by the federal government.

FCC rules

Hours after Obama laid out his plans, FCC Chairman Wheeler reportedly backed away from an endorsement of the president's agenda.

At the time, this possible lack of support was viewed as a potential coup for major internet providers like AT&T, Comcast and Verizon, although subsequent reports have suggested the agency could opt for a hybrid approach in an effort to appease all involved parties.

Wheeler provided a clearer picture of the FCC and president's stances this week.

"When the president came out, there was an effort made to say, 'Wheeler and the president are pulling in opposite directions on this.' But that wasn't exactly the reality because we're both pulling in the same directions, which is no blocking, no throttling of applications, and transparency about how we get there," he said Wednesday.

The FCC chairman praised the regulatory abilities of Title II, but was quick to add that his agency was seeking a proper balance that would foster innovation while giving ISPs a reason to continue investing in broadband infrastructure.

Room for prioritization

During his public interview, Wheeler added that ISPs have the right to offer "a competitive service," but questioned some of the more draconian methods corporations could implement to do so.

"How do you make sure that that pathway stays open ... and make sure that the ISP has an opportunity to get a fair return on investment?" Wheeler mused.

Internet open

Open, but how much? (credit: hajjflemings.com)

On the subject of prioritization, the Wheeler cited the example of an emergency health alert, an instance where such favoritism "makes a whole lot of sense," which could point to situations where regulation could be less heavy-handed.

In the two months since Obama's plan became public, the FCC has weighed a more strict approach to regulation for connecting content providers, with a more lax approach to the "last mile" of the internet linked to the homes of consumers.

Wait and see

Although Wheeler and the FCC now appear in favor of Title II regulation in some form, commissioners will need to determine when it would be "commercially reasonable" to allow such fast lanes, which could create a potential loophole for ISPs to levy consumers with additional fees.

Critics of the FCC's net neutrality indecision fear more boardroom antics such as Verizon charging Netflix for unimpeded access, or worse yet, the ability to reduce internet speeds for services that refuse to pay such tolls.

One thing Wheeler wants to make clear is net neutrality isn't quite as black and white of an issue as many have made it out to be, and the FCC is approaching a final ruling with caution.

"You'll notice that I have not addressed any of the specifics. You have to wait until February to see the specifics," Wheeler concluded, presumably in an effort to remain as neutral on net neutrality as possible until the February 26 vote.