Net Neutrality Isn't a Win Yet

Federal Communication Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler made it clear on Wednesday that he wants to move forward with his plan to use Title II from the Communications Act to regulate Internet service providers and block them from creating Internet fast lanes. Mr. Wheeler's announcement is being heralded as a big win for net neutrality, which seems a bit premature. The FCC still has to vote on his proposal, and assuming it's approved, will then face a legal onslaught from the likes of Verizon and AT&T.

Net neutrality protection is coming, but there's still a fight aheadNet neutrality protection is coming, but there's still a fight ahead

Mr. Wheeler revealed his plans in a Wired op-ed piece on Wednesday. In his piece he said,

I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband. My proposal assures the rights of internet users to go where they want, when they want, and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission.

Mr. Wheeler wants to draw a very clear line in the sand that Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T won't be able to cross. On the other side of that line will be paid prioritization, or charging content providers to ensure their data streams aren't throttled—something both Comcast and Verizon have already pushed onto Netflix.

ISPs aren't enamored with the idea and are ready to do whatever they can to stop Mr. Wheeler from reclassifying Internet services as a common carrier service. Verizon said last year it would sue the FCC to block such a move, and earlier this week AT&T said the same.

Both seem ready to come out swinging in their fight to block the reclassification, which means there's a good chance both are willing to throw as much money as they can into a court fight. That said, Mr. Wheeler feels confident his plan is bullet proof and will stand up under legal scrutiny, unlike the last time the FCC tried to regulate net neutrality

As if that isn't enough of a fight, the plan must first pass an FCC vote. That's coming at the end of February and will likely go Mr. Wheeler's way. If the vote follows historical patterns, we'll see a party line split with two Republican votes against and three Democrat votes in favor.

Senator Al Franken (D-MN) has been an open supporter of net neutrality and he sees Mr. Wheeler's proposal as a big win. "This is preserving net neutrality, that’s what just happened,” he said, according to the Minnesota Post

Mr. Franken added,

All this innovation that has happened on the Internet has been because of net neutrality. It has been the architecture of the Internet from the very beginning, and this is preserving it.

Right now, this is a win in that the FCC has a plan—not yet approved—with some teeth that should give it the authority it needs to ensure all data is treated equally on the Internet. The real win is still off in the future.

After the FCC approves Mr. Wheeler's plan the court room battles will begin. Those fights will likely drag out for a couple years and ultimately land in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. Assuming the court battle favors the FCC in the end, we'll finally see net neutrality enforcement, but not this year and most likely not next year, either.

Until then, ISPs will probably continue on with the fast lane deals they already have in place, and companies like Netflix will have to continue paying. There is a light at the end of the net neutrality tunnel and it's looking like its more than just a faint flicker. That said, we still have a long way to go before declaring the FCC proposal a true win, but it looks like that day could finally be coming.