Next month, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai will hold a final vote to eliminate Obama-era net neutrality laws and the reclassification of Internet service providers as utilities.
Next week, Pai will share his plans for the December 14 vote, according to Reuters, which cited two people briefed on the plans.
Advocates including AT&T, Comcast and Verizon claim this change will spark billions of dollars in investment and rule out the potential for a future administration to regulate Internet pricing using a utilities-like model. Critics assert any change to the rules made under President Barack Obama's FCC will harm small businesses, consumers and overall Internet access as large enterprises pay for premium transmission over ultra-broadband connections.
Regardless if (when?) Pai and his Republican colleagues reclassify ISPs, the battle will continue in court. Senator Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), for example, called for the public to hold a "seismic outcry," reported Light Reading's Mari Silbey earlier this year. To reverse the Open Internet Order, Pai must prove something significant has changed since the courts upheld the ruling last year, Blumenthal added.
Politics should be removed from Internet classifications and net neutrality, said Republican Commissioner Michael O'Rielly. If Congress passes new legislation, these topics won't be open for review with every shift in political power. Of course, with the current administration in place, new legislation most likely would uphold Republican views, Silbey wrote.
Finding statistical clarity is challenging: Both sides have come up with data to support their opinions and have sunk unimaginable resources into public relations and lobbying efforts to shift public and administrative opinion. Generally speaking, Republicans and broadband providers typically support the change, whereas Democrats and technology vendors prefer the status quo.
Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reclassified ISPs in 2015. Prior to that, the government classified ISPs as "information providers" under Title I of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and enacted anti-blocking and non-discrimination rules under the 2010 Open Internet Order. With these rules, the FCC attempted to create an accessible Internet for all without tiered access for higher paying users or content providers.
Depending on your point of view, this worked well. Or it didn't. But whatever your opinion, it is safe to say the Internet, broadband and usage are dramatically different today from pre-2015.
Will history repeat itself?
FTTH investment slowed between 2008 and 2011, but grew exponentially after that year. In 2015, fiber-to-the-home (FTTH) passed about 26 million households, according to a Fiber Broadband Association study that year. Last year, 30.4 million homes were passed, the same organization found in a more recent report.
Perhaps of more import to the net neutrality debate, Tier 1 providers' FTTH dominance decreased over this period: Between 2004 and 2013, large operators including AT&T, Verizon, CenturyLink and Frontier represented approximately 83% of FTTH builds; today, they account for 52%, Fiber Broadband Association found.
Whereas some consumers have a motherlode of provider options that would make it challenging for any ISP to throttle or charge additionally for tiered access, other parts of the US have little to no choice. In these instances, the sole provider could more easily control access -- perhaps as a way to partially recoup expensive fiber rollout costs in sparsely populated areas.
The shift in FTTH delivery is, of course, just one component in the complex net neutrality debate. While it appears the Republican-laden FCC will remove the Title II designation, the steps it takes after that move could be even more impactful.
— Alison Diana, Editor, UBB2020. Follow us on Twitter @UBB2020 or @alisoncdiana.