Government Isn’t Strangling Broadband

Your Take: Here's what's behind Big Telecom's PR push for Internet "innovation," says Rashad Robinson.

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(Special to The Root) — It seems the telecom industry is nervous that its days of simply informing the government how it prefers to conduct its own affairs may finally be numbered. With current Federal Communications Commission Chair Julius Genachowski reported to be stepping down, and buzz building around a potential nominee likely to serve as a much more rigorous public advocate, Big Telecom is ramping up its PR machine to warn us of the danger of informed, effective government oversight.

ColorOfChange members have seen this all before, when we organized to stop the FCC from rubber-stamping what would have been a disastrous merger between AT&T and T-Mobile. Here’s what the telecoms don’t want you to know:

The FCC’s landmark “open Internet rules” ensure that fixed broadband providers — the AT&Ts, Comcasts and Verizons that run DSL, cable or fiber into your home or office — can’t censor your access to the Web. Specifically, fixed broadband providers can’t block sites they’d rather you not visit, and they can’t favor one Web user’s network traffic over another (for example, by slowing a site’s load time).

These open Internet rules represent a critical win for consumers, who for the most part have no real choice when it comes to selecting a broadband provider — and thus no choice about the quality of broadband service we receive. Every monthly cable bill is a fresh reminder of how a lack of competition keeps us tied to underperforming, unresponsive telecom monopolies primarily dedicated to price-gouging their customers. Without the FCC serving as a watchdog — protecting our right to all access the same Web, no matter what telecom market we live in — broadband providers would be working overtime finding new ways to charge us even more for even less.

We don’t have to look far for proof. AT&T Wireless — which, due to an ill-conceived political compromise by the FCC, isn’t subject to the same strict open Internet rules as AT&T’s fixed broadband division — is a prime example of such aggressive hostage-taking behavior. This past spring, AT&T Wireless announced it had invented a way to get paid twice for providing the same service, by charging both data subscribers and Netflix for making Netflix content available on AT&T smartphones. This scheme creates new barriers to access for competitors of Netflix and other preferred apps, managing to both restrict subscribers’ content choices and stifle developer innovation. 

Not content to stop there, AT&T then proceeded to openly violate the one FCC rule that does speak directly to wireless providers — it blocked access to FaceTime, an iPhone video-calling app that competes with AT&T’s own voice services.

Slapped with an FCC complaint, AT&T opted to double-down yet again. The company now claims that no part of its business — not wireless, not fixed broadband — is subject to any government oversight whatsoever. Essentially, AT&T is asserting that it has the right to determine for itself what we see and do on the Internet, in whatever manner the company deems fit. (Verizon has actually filed a federal lawsuit to this effect, asserting a First Amendment right to absolute control over the transmission of information over its network; critics have rightly pointed out that a ruling in Verizon’s favor would negate the First Amendment rights of its millions of subscribers.)