Analysts are speculating that the Federal Communications Commission may vote on reclassifying broadband Internet access as a telephone service before the end of the year, opening the door to conflict with a newly minted 112th Congress or a legal battle with the broadband access industry.
The last two open meetings are scheduled for November 30 and December 15.
What may be at issue is whether broadband Internet access will be treated like telephone service, requiring that certain rules addressing non-discriminatory treatment of telephone calls also be applied to traffic sent across a broadband provider’s network.
Proponents of applying net neutrality rules and reclassification of broadband, namely small content providers and grassroots consumer advocates, have made the argument that transparency about how broadband service providers manage their networks will ensure that large providers such as Comcast and Verizon transmit small content provider traffic at the same rate of speed as Facebook or Google’s traffic.
Opponents of net neutrality and reclassification argue that principles of nondiscriminatory treatment of traffic are currently being applied without burdensome regulations. Adding new regulations means that the additional costs will be passed on to consumers, thus having a dampening effect on demand.
In addition, wireless carriers, such as MetroPCS, believe that net neutrality should not be applied to wireless carriers. Requiring nondiscriminatory treatment of traffic carried over wireless facilities may not be feasible for wireless networks given they have less capacity to carry large amounts of traffic as opposed to wire line carriers.
If the MetroPCS argument is valid, there may be an immediate, negative impact on minority consumers. A disproportionate number of African American consumers access the Internet via wireless devices as opposed to white consumers. According to the Pew Research Council, 87% of all minorities use a cell phone compared to 80% of whites. Sixty-four percent of African Americans use some form of wireless access to the Internet versus 59% of all adults.
While no one knows for sure whether an item on net neutrality or broadband reclassification will appear on the agenda of the next meeting, activity at the FCC in the last four days may indicate that some decision is imminent. For example, net neutrality proponents Free Press and the Media Access Project and net neutrality opponents AT&T and MetroPCS, met with staff of the FCC between November 18 and 23 to discuss reclassification and net neutrality.