Today was, no hyperbole intended, probably one of the more historic -- albeit at times one of the dullest -- days in FCC history. The agency, led by a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries few expected anything from, bucked a myriad of low expectations and voted 3-2 to approve Title II-based net neutrality rules after an unprecedented public-driven tech advocacy campaign. While net neutrality will likely get the lion's share of today's media attention, the FCC also today voted to begin a prolonged assault on ISP-driven, protectionist state telecom law
First, it's important to note that despite a 3-2 vote approving the Title II-based rules, we won't get to see the actual rules today. Despite claims by neutrality opponents that this is some secret cabal specific to net neutrality, the agency historically has never released rules it votes on
(pdf) until well after the actual vote. It's a dumb restriction that's absolutely deadly to open discourse, but it's not unique to one party or to this specific issue.
As for when we'll actually get to see and start dissecting the actual Title II rules ourselves, we may be waiting weeks
-- in part, ironically, thanks to neutrality opponents on the Commission that spent the last few weeks professing to adore transparency:
"In fact, it could take weeks before the final rules are published, the official said. That’s because the two Republican commissioners, Ajit Pai and Mike O’Rielly—who oppose net neutrality of any sort—have refused to submit basic edits on the order. The FCC will not release the text of the order until edits from the offices of all five commissioners are incorporated, including dissenting opinions. This could take a few weeks, depending how long the GOP commissioners refuse to provide edits on the new rules."
Commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Reilly voiced their opposition to the new Title II-based rules by not only voting against them, but by trying to bore meeting attendees to death. Pai, a former Verizon regulatory lawyer, offered a mammoth speech in which he ironically lamented "special interests" and claimed repeatedly to only be opposing net neutrality out of a concern for consumer wallets. O'Reilly tried to top Pai with an even longer, duller speech that continually insisted the FCC was trying to conduct a secret, regulatory takeover of the Internet. A visibly emotional Wheeler was having none of it:
"This proposal has been described by one opponent as, quote, a secret plan to regulate the Internet. Nonsense. This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concepts: openness, expression, and an absence of gate keepers telling people what they can do, where they can go, and what they can think."
While the net neutrality rules are incredibly important, the FCC's decision on municipal broadband may actually wind up being more meaningful over the long run. As we've noted for years
, neutrality violations are really just a symptom of a lack of competition. Around twenty states now have laws in place -- usually based entirely on ISP/ALEC model legislation
-- that prohibit towns and cities from improving their own broadband infrastructure -- even in instances where nobody else will. In some cases these rules even go so far as to prohibit towns and cities from striking public/private partnerships to improve broadband service.
Specifically, the FCC voted 3-2 to approve petitions by EPB Broadband in Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Greenlight in Wilson, North Carolina. Those petitions requested that the FCC use its authority to ensure timely broadband deployment using "measures that promote competition in the local telecommunications market, or other regulating methods that remove barriers to infrastructure investment." While some politicians have lamented the FCC's move as a trampling of states' rights
, these individuals ironically have had no problem with ISPs writing state telecom law that tramples those same rights. The justifications for these restrictions have never been coherently supported, and Wheeler was quick to highlight the hypocrisy of the position:
"You can’t say you’re for broadband and then turn around and endorse limits on who can offer it. You can’t say, ‘I want to follow the explicit instructions of Congress to remove barriers to infrastructure investment,' but endorse barriers on infrastructure investment. You can’t say you’re for competition but deny local elected officials the right to offer competitive choices."
Needless to say, this is likely only a new chapter in the debate over both issues, the precise wording of the neutrality wording will be debated for months if not years, and you can expect ISP legal action on both fronts aimed at protecting the uncompetitive status quo. It also probably goes without saying that opponents of net neutrality and those who like it when AT&T, Verizon and Comcast are allowed to write protectionist telecom law aren't taking the day's events very well. One of the best freakouts of the day belonged to Hal Singer, author of that misleading study we've previously debunked
claiming that you'd face $15 billion in new taxes under Title II:
While some grieve the death of imaginary "innovation angels," thousands of others are celebrating a rare instance where Internet activism was able to overcome lobbying cash and push a government mountain toward doing the right thing.