AT&T Ready to Sue FCC Over Net Neutrality

AT&T is ready to sue the Federal Communication Commission over proposed reclassification of Internet services as a Title II common carrier service under the Communications Act. The FCC wants to make the change so it can preserve net neutrality, but AT&T, like Verizon, doesn't want the agency imposing more restrictions on how they conduct business.

AT&T ready to sue FCC to block net neutrality plansNet neutrality is a concept where all Internet data is treated equally as it passes through servers on its way to end users. Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and other Internet service providers want to charge content providers fees to ensure their content is delivered—just as Verizon and Comcast have already done with Netflix—essentially creating paid "fast lanes" for Internet traffic.

Taken to an extreme, Internet service providers could offer their own branded content to their customers, then charge hefty fees to competitors who want their content to be available, too.

That could also lead to customers paying to see more of the Internet. Verizon, for example, could create its own Internet search engine, then charge its subscribers a fee if they want to see search results from Google. The FCC is hoping to prevent those scenarios by imposing regulations that would prevent service providers from creating their paid fast lanes.

The FCC is planning to vote on its still unreleased changes at the end of February. Those changes are expected to include reclassification for Internet services so the agency will have authority to follow through with its net neutrality protections.

AT&T is clearly against reclassification and is ready to fight the proposed change in court. The company made two filings with the FCC earlier this week regarding its concerns, and made it clear a court fight is an option.

In the filings, AT&T questioned whether Internet Service Providers, or ISPs, offer both information and telecommunication services—something they see as a necessary component for reclassification. Hank Hultquist, AT&T's Federal Regulatory vice president, said,

The elimination of mutual exclusivity could empower the FCC to regulate virtually every tech company that combines transmission with information to deliver digital goods and services to customers. Social networks, digital music, video chat, and even Internet search are all examples of information services that are provided via telecommunications, and thus have a transmission component that could be segregated and regulated under Title II if the mutual exclusivity of information and telecommunications services were breached.

He added that since the FCC considers common carrier service resellers as common carriers, the agency would have regulatory control over devices like cars and ebook readers because they're "virtually indistinguishable from ISPs in their use of transmission as a way to deliver information."

AT&T also argued that the FCC hasn't conducted a detailed analysis of individual carriers to determine whether or not they should be reclassified. "Under longstanding precedent, the FCC must make particularized findings with respect to the offerings of individual carriers in order for it to find that either they are operating as common carriers, or should be required to operate as common carriers," Mr. Hulquist said.

Assuming AT&T's filings don't sway the FCC, the company is ready to take its fight to court. It won't be alone because Verizon threatened to do the same last year.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has already said he expects the lawsuits will come, and that he's ready for the fight.

"We are going to get sued, because that's the history. We don't want to ignore history," he said. "We want to come out with good rules that accomplish what we need to accomplish: no blocking, no throttling, no fast-lane discrimination."

The FCC has already been on the losing side of this fight, and presumably learned important lessons so this time its net neutrality plans won't get shot down. The last time around, Verizon sued the FCC and won when an appeals court said the agency couldn't treat ISPs as common carriers while at the same time exempting them from common carrier rules.

This time, the FCC plans to reclassify ISPs so it can use its authority over common carriers, and that's exactly what AT&T and Verizon want to block.

Details from the FCC's plan are expected to come out later this week. Get ready to see the rhetoric and lawsuits fly.