More than 60 technology companies, from Cisco to Intel and IBM, have asked the FCC not to tighten the rules on what ISPs can do with web traffic and subscribers' bills.
Specifically, the IT giants do not want the US watchdog to reclassify ISPs as "Title II" providers, a classification championed by some net neutrality advocates. Title II could be used to crack down on broadband prices and unfair traffic filtering, they say.
The letter [PDF] from the technology companies to the FCC – sent today via the Telecommunications Industry Association (TIA) – was also posted to Congressional leaders. The missive argues that reclassifying ISPs – strongly urged by President Obama last month – would lead to a big reduction in broadband rollout.
"Reversing course now by shifting to Title II means that instead of billions of broadband investment driving other sectors of the economy forward, any reduction in this spending will stifle growth across the entire economy," it reads, before adding, "This is not idle speculation or fear mongering… if you don’t know that you can recover on your investment, you won’t make it."
It quotes an economic study [PDF] sent to the FCC in November that forecast a 17 to 32 per cent reduction in expected investment if public utility style legislation is approved, amounting to billions of dollars.
"If even half of the ISPs decide to pull back investment to this degree, the impact on the tech equipment sector will be immediate and severe," the letter warns, "and the impact would be even greater if wireless broadband is reclassified."
Damned if you do...
The decision over how to classify the United States' internet infrastructure has become an increasingly difficult one after a "hybrid plan" under review by FCC Chair Tom Wheeler was met with protests, and then a public White House message from President Obama in which he argued forcefully for applying the 1934 Telecommunications Act and effectively make the internet a public utility.
There are numerous problems with applying the outdated legislation, but the alternative – applying the one-paragraph Section 706 from the 1996 Telecommunications Act – would give cable companies tremendous leeway in how they charge customers and other businesses for access to data.
The FCC was due to make a decision about the rules in December, but following an explosion of public interest, further fueled by Obama's intervention, it has put off the issue until at least January.
The delay has led Republicans – who will take over both houses of Congress on 3 January – to talk about creating legislation to preempt the FCC. The new chairman of the Senate Committee on Commerce, Science and Transportation, John Thune, told Bloomberg yesterday he was “very interested” in the idea in order to avoid a possible Title II classification, although he admitted they would have to move fast.
Whatever route the FCC takes, it will be met with a furious response and likely a number of lawsuits. Since its old rules for classifying the internet were thrown out by a Washington DC court, it has little option but to make a decision. One that will have far-reaching impacts. ®