This morning President Barack Obama issued a statement that he thinks the Federal Communications Commission should reclassify the Internet as a utility. Net neutrality advocate Marvin Ammori says that getting Obama’s public approval may help deliver a decision from the FCC as early as December.
“Comcast is the Halliburton of this administration. It gives a lot of money,” says Ammori, highlighting just one member of the powerful lobby against net neutrality. That’s why he didn’t expect the president to come out in support of net neutrality and Internet reclassification. Now that he has, Ammori says it will be fast work to get the commission on board.
“I think it would be tough for all three to not side with Obama,” says Ammori, referring to the three Democrats currently on the commission’s five-member board. The FCC requires a simple majority to pass a new ruling.
We’ve seen fierce debate over whether the FCC should enact net neutrality laws that would prevent Internet service providers from creating “fast lanes,” so called because they would allow companies to charge higher rates for better access. Though Ammori is optimistic, actually getting the FCC to reclassify Internet access under Title II of the Communications Act — essentially regulating the Internet in a manner similar to the nation’s telephone system — may prove more difficult.
Shortly after the White House released Obama’s statement, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler sent out a memo, which said the commission would review the president’s recommendation and that it is already considering reclassification under Title II. But he also noted the commission is seeking out other options as well.
“Recently, the commission staff began exploring ‘hybrid’ approaches, proposed by some members of Congress and leading advocates of net neutrality, which would combine the use of both Title II and Section 706,” writes Wheeler. The letter goes onto say that the research into “hybrid” options means a final vote on the net neutrality order may be delayed. Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act is an alternative classification, and a more controversial one. If broadband access is reclassified under section 706 it would be subject to a lot less regulation than it would under Title II.
Wheeler has been consistently vague on where he stands on the net neutrality divide. This note continues that trend, making it difficult to determine if or when Internet users should expect reclassification of broadband. If anything, this note is an effort to buy the chairman and the commission some time to make a decision.
The chairman is also very connected to the big telecoms. As my colleague Tom Cheredar noted when Wheeler was first appointed, “He’s the former president of the National Cable Television Association (NCTA), former CEO of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA), a board member of PBS, and cofounder of investor relations service company SmartBrief.”
It’s also worth noting that while there has been a lot of support from many Internet companies for a net neutrality order that incorporates reclassification, service providers AT&T, Comcast, and Time Warner cable have been equally outspoken against it. These companies have also spent a lot of money funding the right political campaigns, as Ars Technica‘s David Kravet points out. So a net neutrality ruling that involves Title II classification may not be a foregone conclusion.
Ammori, however, is confident it will be. While he acknowledges the complicated nature of net neutrality politically, he says it’s a fairly straightforward issue from a policy perspective. “The whole innovation engine across the economy is hinging on access to the Internet without discrimination,” he says. Hurt that access and you hurt the economy — something neither Democrats nor Republicans can afford to be responsible for.
The FCC began seeking public comment on its broad rulemaking regarding net neutrality in May. Ammori is optimistic that the FCC will put the order to a vote at its open commission meeting on Dec. 11.
President Obama’s statement is below: