Late last year, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) reversed the Obama-era net neutrality policy that treated Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as utilities. While a coalition of Washington House lawmakers now wants to revive the policy at a state level, industry leaders caution that the regulation led to a national decrease in wireless infrastructure investments.
The push is coming in the form of two nearly identical bills, both of which received a January 18 public hearing of the House Technology & Economic Development Committee.
Introduced by Rep. Drew Hansen (D-23), HB 2282 includes 51 cosponsors including Republican Reps. Melanie Stambaugh (R-25) and Assistant Minority Floor Leader Joyce McDonald (R-25). HB 2284 is sponsored by Rep. Norma Smith (R-10), with similar bipartisan support.
Proponents argue that the bills are necessary to enable equal access to the Internet, while industry leaders say the regulation is unnecessary and hampers investment.
Prior to 2015, ISPS were considered “information services” and under the purview of the FTC. Net neutrality reclassified them as telecommunication services. As a result, they became subject to the FCC common carrier regulations under Article II of the Communications Act of 1934.
While net neutrality prohibited a number of activities by ISPs, including blocking lawful content, treating internet traffic differently based on content, application or service, also known as “throttling”, and using paid prioritization, one industry representative said there’s no actual example of this happening.
While supporters argue that the regulations prevent ISPs from charging different rates and offering different traffic speeds depending on the site, business and industry leaders say the issue is overblown, as the Communications Act of 1934 doesn’t require equal access as commonly claimed. In fact, the law states: “different charges may be set for the different classes of communication.”
Stakeholders also take issue with the claims of undue financial burdens the policy places on ISPs who must provide the infrastructure.
Those issues are validated by testimony provided at the public hearing by Gerry Keegan, assistant vice president of state legislative affairs for CTIA, a trade association representing the wireless communications industry including AT&T, Sprint and T-Mobile.
“They (FCC) found that broadband investment in this country declined” as a result of net neutrality,” he said. “In the mobile space alone, from 2014 to 2016, US wireless providers invested $6 billion less in capital expenditures.”
He added that “before 2015, there were virtually no instances where wireless providers locked lawful content or prevented consumers from reaching the Internet. (It is) also important to note that after the FCC action, there are still consumer actions in place.”
The FCC reached similar conclusions in its Restoring Internet Freedom Order: “There is scant evidence that end users, under different legal frameworks, have been prevented by blocking or throttling from accessing the content of their choosing. If anything, recent evidence suggests that hosting services, social media platforms, edge providers, and other providers of virtual Internet infrastructure are more likely to block content on viewpoint grounds.”
FCC Chairman Ajit Pai last year argued that “edge” providers such as Google and Facebook “might cloak their advocacy in the public interest, but the real interest of these internet giants is in using the regulatory process to cement their dominance in the internet economy.”
Under HB 8282, net neutrality policies would be enforced in Washington, with violations subject to enforcement under the state Consumer Protection Act (CPA).
The enforcement aspect of both bills drew concern from Chair Jeff Morris (D-40), who said he was unclear about the funding mechanism to resolve any issues that may arise, adding that it could also place an undue financial burden on the state to prosecute violators due to the all-or-nothing outcome in the Washington state court system.
Both Smith and Hansen acknowledge the issue as a problem, with Smith saying the topic had not been discussed with industry stakeholders.
Both bills are scheduled for committee action on January 30.