Fourth-place US mobile operator Sprint has broken ranks with the telco industry and said it think that Title II legislation should apply to broadband internet provision - both wired and wireless.
In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) - which is due to decide on the matter next month - Sprint CTO Stephen Bye states explicitly that using the stronger regulatory approach of Title II would not impact the company's rollout of broadband. And, he notes, it was use of Title II that enabled Sprint to originally enter the wireless market.
"Sprint does not believe that a light touch application of Title II, including appropriate forbearance, would harm the continued investment in, and deployment of, mobile broadband services," Bye writes.
"When first launched, the mobile market was a licensed duopoly. This system was a failure, resulting in slow deployment, high prices and little innovation. In 1993, Congress revised the Telecommunications Act to allow new carriers, including Sprint, to enter the market. This competition resulted in tremendous investment in the wireless industry, broader deployment, greater innovation, and falling prices."
Bye does note repeatedly however that in applying Title II, the FCC would have to remove (or "forebear") large chunks of the outdated law from 1934 and ensure a "light touch regulatory regime".
That stance put Sprint at odds with the rest of the industry, particularly Verizon, AT&T and Comcast, who have been aggressively fighting the possible use of Title II and warning that if it were imposed it would cause them to scale back their broadband plans.
It does however reflect what President Obama has explicitly stated is his preferred approach and what appears to be the path that the FCC will ultimately choose, based on remarks from FCC chair Tom Wheeler earlier this month. Washington insiders have been reporting that in recent weeks talk has turned to what parts of Title II needs to be pulled out, rather than continue to argue that much lighter Section 706 legislation be applied.
The letter touches on the political aspect later on in the letter: "Sprint has always believed that competition, not regulation, will provide consumers the best mobile services at the lowest price. We urge the FCC and Congress not to be distracted by debates over Title II."
Faced with an almost certain reality, Sprint is not exactly taking a bold stand but it is remarkable nonetheless that it went public with its views.
It is worth noting that Sprint has less to lose and more to gain from Title II net neutrality provisions than its competitors. The company does not have a wired broadband infrastructure and works almost exclusively over wireless. Greater controls on its rivals' much larger networks are almost certain to give it a comparative advantage, at least compared to now.
More importantly, having a telco stand up and argue that Title II would not only increase competition but also not impact broadband rollout - which have been the two strongest arguments against Title II classification - could give the FCC the necessary leeway, and legal defense, to make a decision in favor of Title II.
It seems almost too neat. Is there a quid pro quo from the FCC? If there is, it will come in the form of rules specifically for the mobile market, as the last line in the letter appears to hint at:
"We urge the FCC and Congress not to be distracted by debates over Title II but to focus on competition by ensuring that any net neutrality regulations adopted recognize the unique network management challenges faced by mobile carriers and the need to allow mobile carriers the flexibility to design products and services to differentiate ourselves in the market." ®