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NPI to FCC’s Ajit Pai: Broadband must remain classified as a telecommunications service

Editor’s Note: The following are the comments submitted by the Northwest Progressive Institute to the Federal Communications Commission in support of a free and open Internet, opposing Republican Ajit Pai’s proposal to do away with the rules adopted in 2015 to require broadband providers to adhere to net neutrality.

Commissioners:

Title 47 of the Code of the United States states that it shall be the policy of this country to “make available so far as possible, to all the people of the United States, without discrimination on the basis of race, color, religion, national origin, or sex, rapid, efficient, Nationwide, and world-wide wire and radio communication services with adequate facilities at reasonable charges.”

At the time the Federal Communications Commission was created in 1934, the dominant electronic medium was radio. Television was in its infancy and packet switching — the technology underpinning the Internet — had not yet been invented. Much has changed since the FCC was created and charged with ensuring that interstate communication services were regulated in the public interest.

But one thing has not changed: the need for effective rules that prohibit providers of communication services from engaging in discriminatory practices.

Technology has advanced by leaps and bounds since the 1930s. Today, it is possible to work remotely, go shopping, read a book, watch a show, meet virtually with someone halfway around the world, or simply execute a search for information thanks to the technologies that we know today as the Internet — the largest and most important communication service in the history of the world.

Key to the Internet’s success as a free and open medium has been the principle that all traffic should be treated equally, with no discrimination permitted.

This principle, defined as net neutrality by Columbia University’s Tim Wu, must be enforced if the Internet is to have a bright future, not merely paid lip service.

Two years ago, the Federal Communications Commission finally recognized that broadband is a communications service, and accordingly classified it as such. By adopting Order 15-24 (In the Matter of Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet), the FCC fulfilled its responsibility to establish effective rules that prohibit providers of communication services from engaging in discriminatory practices.

We were among the millions of persons and organizations who lobbied the FCC in support of the adoption of the Open Internet Order. The Order has served our country well since it went into effect two years ago, but Commissioner Pai is now proposing to abolish it and go back to the days when net neutrality was neither properly codified nor effectively enforced. This is unacceptable. We write to emphatically urge that this destructive proposal be discarded.

Contrary to what Commissioner Pai has said in his many wrongheaded statements,  broadband (including mobile broadband) is a utility. It is basic infrastructure, necessary for access to the Internet. It is entirely appropriate for broadband to be classified as a telecommunications service under Title II.

Broadband today is no less essential than plain old telephone service or electrical power are. In fact, many Americans are now connected to the public switched telephone network via their broadband Internet connection using a mature group of technologies known as VOIP (Voice Over Internet Protocol).

The objectionable tardiness that preceded the FCC’s recognition of this reality with Order 15-24 is not a justification for turning back the clock now.

Broadband is precisely the kind of indispensable communications service that President Franklin Delano Roosevelt wanted to wisely regulate when he proposed the creation of the FCC in the winter of 1934.

In a message to Congress dated February 26th, 1934, Roosevelt wrote:

I recommend that the Congress create a new agency to be known as the Federal Communications Commission, such agency to be vested with the authority now lying in the Federal Radio Commission and with such authority over communications as now lies with the Interstate Commerce Commission — the services affected to be all of those which rely on wires, cables, or radio as a medium of transmission.

In the opening sentence of that same message, President Roosevelt remarked that he had long felt the federal government’s relationship with certain services known as utilities ought to be divided into three fields, with two being transportation and power, and the third communications. Roosevelt’s purpose in calling for the creation of the Federal Communications Commission was to spur Congress to establish an agency with “broad authority” over the field of communications.

And Congress did just that before the year was out.

The FCC has an obligation to act in the public interest and to use its broad authority to ensure companies providing communications services don’t discriminate. This is the purpose of Order 15-24, which was upheld as lawful by the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit after being challenged by AT&T.

It is well known and understood that the Internet has revolutionized the way we conduct business. It is also a well known fact that companies such as Netflix, Amazon, Google, and Facebook owe their existence to the Internet.

So do we. Unlike the aforementioned companies, though, we aren’t a for-profit venture. Rather, we are a small nonprofit organized for social welfare purposes. We, the staff and board of the Northwest Progressive Institute (NPI), seek to raise America’s quality of life through insightful research and imaginative advocacy.

Before NPI existed physically – before it existed legally – it existed virtually, as an idea on the World Wide Web. That idea – to build a socially and environmentally responsible think tank with the soul of a tech startup – could not have taken root or been embraced by a larger group of people without the Internet.

At NPI, we believe that progress requires a willingness to look at the big picture, think pragmatically, and act boldly. A major focus of our research is gauging public support for policy directions that would lead to greater freedom and broad prosperity, but which have not yet taken root in the public consciousness.

Worthy ideas cannot enter the public discourse or become public policy if nobody knows about them. That is why, in addition to carrying out research, we publish two widely read blogs (the Cascadia Advocate and In Brief) and maintain a news and information hub (Pacific NW Portal) that aggregates high quality content from other online publications as well as mass media with an online presence.

Prior to the Internet era, when nonprofits wanted to get the word out about their work, they had to go through gatekeepers to reach a mass audience. Today, it’s possible for a nonprofit like NPI to reach large numbers of people directly without having to buy advertising from — or succeed in getting the attention of — the large corporations that own most newspapers, television networks, and radio stations.

We do not take this freedom for granted. The Internet is now threatened by the same forces responsible for unchecked media consolidation. Companies like Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T are racing to accumulate power and influence. These companies, which have traditionally been in the business of providing phone service and broadband service, now seek control over our nation’s mass media.

Distressingly, they’re getting it. Comcast has been allowed to acquire NBC Universal, after its earlier attempt to buy Disney was rebuffed. Verizon has snapped up AOL and Yahoo. And AT&T is currently attempting to buy Time Warner. All three of these megacorporations are Internet service providers with enormous market share.

We have no doubt that if these behemoths were given free rein to create a fast lane to prioritize their own content and charge fees for access to that fast lane, they would. Order 15-24 presently bars them from engaging in such schemes.

The overwhelming majority of comments submitted to the FCC in advance of the vote adopting Order 15-24 expressed strong support for effective regulations classifying broadband as a telecommunications service and requiring broadband providers to adhere to the principles of net neutrality.

That same sentiment can be found in the vast majority of comments submitted to date, which strenuously oppose Commissioner Pai’s damaging proposal.

The opposition includes many Internet service providers. Two weeks ago, you received a letter from thirty companies that sell broadband to communities across the country urging you to keep the current rules in place. The companies noted that the rules had not adversely affected their business at all. In their words:

We have encountered no new additional barriers to investment or deployment as a result of the 2015 decision to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications  service and have long supported network neutrality as a core principle for the deployment of networks for the American public to access the Internet.

The FCC must listen to the multitude of diverse voices speaking out in defense of a free and open Internet, and abandon its proposed rulemaking.

Sincerely,

Rick Hegdahl
President
Northwest Progressive Institute
Andrew Villeneuve
Founder and Executive Director
Northwest Progressive Institute