Net neutrality meets opposition in US, while Europe mulls charges for Big Tech

Republican senators claim move will never survive judges' scrutiny

The Biden administration's proposals to restore net neutrality rules for US internet services are facing opposition from Republican senators who claim it is a politicized move that would not survive judicial review.

Plans to revive the policy adopted during President Obama’s tenure came to light at the end of last month. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel declared her intention to seek a vote on restoring the net neutrality that was rescinded by the Trump administration.

But in an open letter to Rosenworcel, 43 Republican senators call on the FCC chair to rethink things, saying to reinstate the “heavy-handed public utility regulations” would be a mistake and urging her to “end this charade.”

Net neutrality is certainly a controversial topic in the Land of the Free, but it was a partisan issue long before the current FCC chair got involved. The apparently simple notion of requiring broadband internet companies to provide a fair and equitable service that does not prioritize any particular content or traffic is a bone of contention that divides opinion.

In their letter, the senators claim the growth of the internet continues to be “a great American success story”, and that “broadband investment has increased, deployment has increased, speeds have increased, and high-speed internet access has become more affordable than ever,” while internet providers have been free from the FCC’s authority to regulate them.

The senators also contrasted the US, which they claim is now in a leadership position in adopting “next-generation telecommunications services” like 5G and Wi-Fi 6e, with “Europe’s heavily regulated internet providers” which they say are struggling to keep pace.

Red tape in Europe likely not the issue

However, it is debatable if heavy regulation is what is holding back European 5G rollout. An article on the UK market in the Financial Times earlier this year pointed to a dearth of sufficient investment by the telcos themselves, which blamed the lack of a “killer application” that would drive subscriber demand for 5G.

It also pointed to disruption caused by the UK government’s ban on telecoms equipment from Huawei, which was imposed because of pressure from Washington.

And as The Register also noted, individual US states have adopted their own net neutrality laws in place of federal regulation. Washington, Oregon, and California passed net neutrality laws in 2018, and Colorado, Maine, New Jersey, and Vermont did so more recently, while other states have supported net neutrality via executive orders.

The senators argue that reclassifying internet providers in the US as Title II common carriers, giving the FCC authority once again to regulate them would “threaten the progress the country has made” and “steer our country out of the fast lane and into a world of less competition, less choice, less investment, slower speeds and higher prices.”

However, when proposing the reinstatement of net neutrality, Rosenworcel had claimed that the lack of authority was hampering the FCC’s ability to address competition concerns such as the many places in the US where customers do not have a choice of service provider.

In the letter, the senators also state that any attempt by the FCC to reinstate net neutrality will not survive judicial review, and the Biden administration should instead focus its efforts on addressing what they claimed is rampant waste, fraud and abuse in the federal government’s broadband subsidy programs.

European telcos wants Big Tech to pay... not them – the other Big Tech

Meanwhile in Europe, the telecoms operators themselves are calling for greater EU regulation, but of so-called Big Tech companies, to make them pay a greater contribution towards the upkeep of networks.

In an open letter to the European Commission and members of the European parliament, the heads of more than 20 telcos are calling on EU policymakers to “ensure a fair contribution from those companies that benefit most from the infrastructure we build and operate.”

The letter doesn’t explicitly name the Big Tech companies they have in mind, but it won’t be beyond Reg readers to guess who the likely candidates are.

The telcos claim that at least €174 billion ($183 billion) of new investment will be needed by 2030 to support the EU’s goals for growth and to enhance European competitiveness. At the same time, the telecoms sector is “currently not strong enough to meet that demand”.

Data traffic has grown relentlessly at an average rate of 20-30 percent each year, the telcos claim in the letter, and this is primarily driven by just a handful of large tech companies that currently “pay almost nothing for data transport in our networks.”

The telecoms operators are calling for a payment mechanism to be introduced that should follow “a well-defined and targeted scope addressing only the very largest traffic generators”, one that excludes smaller content and application providers. This should be followed “in full compliance with net neutrality rules.”

The list of signatories to the letter includes the CEOs from Vodafone, Deutsche Telekom, BT, Telefónica, Hutchison Europe and Liberty Global. ®

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