It's been a long, arduous fight, but the first battle has been won: The FCC has voted to classify Internet service providers as Title II common carriers.
This vote allows the FCC to impose restrictions on ISPs to maintain Net neutrality, preventing them from favoring the traffic of one company over another, or from artificially constraining bandwidth in order to extort payments from other companies, which is what Comcast did to Netflix via Level3 and Cogent.
With this vote, we finally have a pathway to rein in the vast overreaches of the big ISPs, who have been systematically underdelivering and overcharging for Internet access in the United States for years, while simultaneously scooping up billions from taxpayers to improve service nationwide.
Ultimately, the goal should be to ensure that there is suitable broadband Internet available for a reasonable price in every community in the United States -- much like the United States currently enjoys with telephone and power services. Based on statements made before the vote, it's unlikely we'll see that level of utility regulation imposed on ISPs, at least to start, but that avenue is now open.
On the other side of this battle are the ISPs and their lobbying groups. The definition of Net neutrality has been twisted almost beyond recognition by these groups, who have been trying to literally reverse its meaning for years in order to fend off regulation.
In fact, Net neutrality has a simple definition: It means that no carrier can prioritize traffic from one source over another and must treat all data traffic the same. No entity can either enhance or reduce the performance of a given application or service.
It means maintaining the status quo of the Internet since day one, rather than allowing Netflix/Comcast-style extortion to persist. It levels the playing field for all companies, meaning that it enhances competition and innovation because competitors and innovators won't be bled dry by the ISPs in order to have their company, service, or application visible on the Internet. In the same way, it prevents large companies from paying ISPs to prioritize their traffic to the detriment of their competitors, leading to less innovation because there is suddenly no viable competition in their market.
But more than Net neutrality is at stake. There's also the specter of ISP monopolies to deal with. Under Title II regulation, it's possible to encourage competition in these markets while also encouraging innovation.
We need only look at the cellular market that has been regulated under Title II for decades. In fact, the inclusion of wireless Internet access in the FCC's new regulations is very important because it underscores the FCC's acknowledgement that wireless Internet is becoming an increasingly viable option for broadband Internet access for many Americans who have been woefully underserved by regional ISPs. This, coupled with the FCC's reclassification recent of "broadband Internet" to a minimum of 25Mbps substantially changes the Internet game in the United States for ISPs and their customers alike.
What should happen following these new regulations is that Internet access becomes faster, cheaper, and more available to more Americans than ever before. We have successfully achieved those goals for telephone and electricity services. There's no reason we can't do the same for Internet service.
A raft of legal challenges will arrive in the coming weeks and months, with the ISPs fighting any and all attempts to bring them to heel. There may also be legal challenges from groups like the EFF that consider the language of the regulations to be too lenient or vague in some places.
The ISPs have been loudly protested Title II reclassification, threatening to stop infrastructure rollouts, decrying the heavy hand of government regulation, and predicting spiraling costs and reduced services. But it's not the first time a large industry trotted out all kinds of boogeymen to scare lawmakers and the populace alike.
We might recall the dire warnings another major industry voiced back in 1982. Testifying in front of Congress, then-MPAA head Jack Valenti famously stated: "I say to you that the VCR is to the American film producer and the American public as the Boston strangler is to the woman home alone." Fortunately, Congress was not swayed by his hyperbole. Home video quickly became a massive source of new revenue for those industries, while consumers were able to view movies in their own home at their own leisure for the first time ever.
Despite that legacy, we will see legal teeth gnashing and cataclysmic predictions as the FCC tries to reign in the ISP beast. It won't be pretty, it won't be perfect, and it will take longer than it should and cost way too much -- but there's no other choice. The FCC has spoken. We have been given the means to control our Internet future.