Net neutrality is firmly on the chopping block in the aftermath of Donald Trump’s election. The two Republican members of the FCC, Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly, have made this clear in a letter sent to small ISPs with less than 100,000 subscribers, in which they vow to revisit both the issue of requiring ISPs to be transparent as regards their services and pricing, as well as net neutrality itself. Incoming President-elect Donald Trump has stated that he opposes net neutrality, as have Pai and O’Rielly, and the regulatory scheme that implements it is not long expected to survive Trump’s taking office.
The current net neutrality rules date back to 2014, when the FCC classified broadband carriers as common carriers for the purposes of requiring them to treat all Internet traffic equally, rather than using service tiers and fees to create different quality of service depending on what the end-user is willing to pay. Under the current rules, AT&T, Comcast, and other wireline providers are required to treat traffic flowing over wired installations as equal — Comcast can’t sell you a plan in which it offers low latencies for gaming but then withhold that service from a different plan unless a specific fee is paid. It’s not hard to see why ISPs opposed this move — given the absolutely miserable state of competition in the US broadband market, nothing would make the large Internet Service Providers happier than being able to nickel-and-dime users for acceptable performance from sites and services that rely on low ping times to function effectively.
Under Tom Wheeler, the FCC generally defended the principle of an open Internet, as opposed to a tiered version. He stopped short of banning certain controversial practices, like the zero-rating offerings companies like Comcast now promote. (Quick recap: A zero-rated application is one that doesn’t count against your monthly broadband limits. By offering its own services as zero-rated or partnering with companies willing to pony up for the same treatment, ISPs can distort the market to favor their own products or simply create barriers to entry too high for up-and-coming firms to topple). In their letter, Pai and O’Rielly state “We will seek to revisit those particular rules [the ones mandating price and feature transparency] and the Title II Net Neutrality proceeding more broadly, as soon as possible.” The new rules were previously put in place with a 100K threshold on subscribers (meaning ISPs with less than 100K subscribers did not have to obey them). Republicans sought to expand this to a 250,000 subscriber cap.
Both Pai and O’Rielly are firmly against net neutrality, with Pai labeling it “a solution that won’t work to a problem that doesn’t exist,” despite the fact that the “solution” has generally been in place for the life of the Internet and the problem — the creation of a tiered Internet — is almost certain to fall hardest on the groups of people who have the most limited access to the Internet already. In early December, Ajit Pai signaled his eagerness to dismantle the regulatory regime that enforced net neutrality, declaring “We need to fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation.”
Pai has not addressed how allowing a handful of duopoly and monopolized markets to rake in even larger profits off their customers meaningfully creates jobs, spurs investment, or drives innovation — unless, of course, he’s referring to expanding the innovative system of fees and price increases that ISPs are still allowed to levy under the current regime. Americans, even those living in dense urban areas, already pay far more for broadband than other places in the world, as shown in the graph above.