EnlargeGetty Images | Kheng ho Toh
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The US Federal Communications Commission’s two Republican members told ISPs yesterday that they will get to work on gutting net neutrality rules “as soon as possible.”
FCC Republicans Ajit Pai and Michael O’Rielly sent a letter to five lobby groups representing wireless carriers and small ISPs; while the letter is mostly about plans to extend an exemption for small providers from certain disclosure requirements, the commissioners also said they will tackle the entire net neutrality order shortly after President-elect Donald Trump’s inauguration on January 20.
“[W]e will seek to revisit [the disclosure] requirements, and the Title II Net Neutrality proceeding more broadly, as soon as possible,” they wrote, referring to the order that imposed net neutrality rules and reclassified ISPs as common carriers under Title II of the Communications Act. Pai and O’Rielly noted that they “dissented from the Commission’s February 2015 Net Neutrality decision, including the Order’s imposition of unnecessary and unjustified burdens on providers.”
Pai and O’Rielly will have a 2-1 Republican majority on the FCC after the departure of Democratic Chairman Tom Wheeler on January 20. Pai previously said that the Title II net neutrality order’s “days are numbered” under Trump, while O’Rielly said he intends to “undo harmful policies” such as the Title II reclassification.
The net neutrality order gave ISPs with 100,000 or fewer subscribers a temporary exemption from enhanced transparency requirements that force operators to provide more information about the plans they offer and their network performance.
ISPs can comply with the rules by adopting “nutrition labels” that give consumers details about prices (including hidden fees tacked onto the base price), data caps, overage charges, speed, latency, packet loss, and so on.
The exemption for small providers lapsed on December 15 after the FCC couldn’t agree on a deal to extend it. Pai and O’Rielly tried to convince fellow commissioners to extend the exemption for small providers and apply it to any ISP with up to 250,000 subscribers.
To make things more complicated, the enhanced transparency rules haven’t yet taken effect for ISPs of any size because that portion of the net neutrality order required an additional review by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to comply with the Paperwork Reduction Act.
The OMB finally approved the new requirements last week, and they are now set to take effect on January 17.
“We want to assure you and your members that we would not support any adverse actions against small business providers for supposed non-compliance with the ‘enhanced transparency’ rules after that date [January 17],” Pai and O’Rielly wrote. That means small ISPs won’t have to worry about complying even when the rules are technically in effect.
More broadly, the Title II net neutrality order prohibits ISPs from blocking or throttling traffic or giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment.
The order also set up a complaint process to prevent “unjust” or “unreasonable” pricing and practices. The threat of complaints to the FCC helped put an end to several disputes between ISPs and other network operators over network interconnection payments; this in turn improved Internet service quality for many subscribers.
All of that is in jeopardy with the Pai/O’Rielly promise to undo the entire Title II net neutrality order.
The process could take months, even if they get started right away, because of requirements to seek public comment.
The Republican-controlled Congress could act more quickly, since Trump has opposed net neutrality rules and isn’t likely to veto a bill overturning the Title II order. When either the FCC or Congress do act, the biggest question will be whether the net neutrality regime is replaced with a weaker set of rules or scrapped entirely.
EnlargeGetty Images | Kheng ho Toh