Democrats Launch Uphill Battle to Restore Net Neutrality

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai answers a question from a reporter after a 2018 meeting where commissioners voted to end net neutrality in Washington. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin, File)

WASHINGTON (CN) – House lawmakers heard an endorsement of net neutrality Tuesday from a small internet service provider, but Republicans on the committee offered poor odds of Congress restoring the Obama-era rules.

“This bill will die in the Senate,” said Representative Pete Olson, R-Texas, of  the Save the Internet Act. “It’s dead,” Olson said.

Co-sponsored by Representative Mike Doyle, D-Pa., the bill would permanently prohibit ISPs from blocking or throttling internet access, a key principle of the Open Internet Order of 2015, which the Republican-majority Federal Communications Commission overturned last year in a 3-2 vote.

While net-neutrality advocates argue the the order protects consumers, allowing for greater distribution of access, opponents decry the policy as a uncompetitive.

The battle hinges on how broadband internet is categorized for regulatory purposes. Instead of a Title I classification that marked it as an “information service,” net-neutrality advocates would have the internet grouped with utilities like phone and electric providers under Title II as a “common carrier.”

During a hearing of the House Committee on Energy and Commerce on Tuesday, Democrats solicited testimony in support of net neutrality from Gregory Green, CEO of Fatbeam, a small internet service provider deploying to seven markets throughout the West Coast.

Green touted the 2015 policy as enshrining the philosophy of “equal access for everyone,” and said the consumers benefitted when it was in place.

“In a lot of marketplaces, 70 percent of consumers only have one choice for their ISP,” he said. “We don’t believe that’s open access. People need competition, they need a landscape they can count on and investment in their own community.”

Fatbeam builds fiber-optic networks and serves populations – including rural populations – of 150,000 or fewer. In a marketplace where large ISPs and other giant telecommunication corporations set prices, Green said they effectively control the flow of information. Through Fatbeam, he added, residents can connect to services they cannot find – or might not be able to afford.

Challenging that testimony, however, Cooley LLP partner Robert McDowell pointed to complaints that the FCC received from smaller ISPs that said the Open Internet Order made it tough for them to get financing. McDowell is also a senior fellow at the Hudson Institute.

Also at the hearing, Representative Greg Walden, R-Ore., criticized the old net-neutrality policy for focusing too much on large ISPs, lacking language that would specifically prohibit throttling by edge providers, like Netflix.

Republicans have submitted at least three bills aimed at restoring rules against blocking, throttling and paid prioritization, but historically negotiations have fallen apart due to a fundamental disagreement over how the FCC’s “general conduct standard” is applied within the 2015 order.

Republicans argue that the standard regulates technology that hasn’t even hit the market, while Democrats insist that any order without a general conduct standard was too limiting.

Tuesday’s hearing is one of several sessions where lawmakers will discuss the repeal of net neutrality and review FCC data. 

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