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Net neutrality: it's AT&T, Comcast vs. Google, Facebook, Amazon

01 September 2017

The US Federal Communications Commission, seeking comments on a proposal to kill Obama-era net neutrality rules, received over 22 million comments and replies till the window closed on Wednesday night a new record as chairman Ajit Pai and his colleagues work on new rules for the internet.

The previous record was just 3.7 million, which happened during the last time the FCC debated net neutrality.

The four basic points are not blocking websites for certain users, no throttling (creating a fast and slow lane), fostering more transparency between consumers and ISPs, and finally, no paid prioritisation to move to the front of the line.

The comments saw AT&T Inc and Comcast Corp on one side pitched against Netflix Inc and other 'edge providers' such as Facebook Inc, Inc and Alphabet Inc.'s Google on the other, with comments from citizens, public interest groups, Attorneys General and others thrown into the mix.

Pai argues that the Obama FCC overreached when it reclassified broadband as a telecom service, akin to a regulated utility, rather than as an information service, which receive little oversight from the government.

AT&T sought to cut down the idea that companies like Amazon and Netflix share a level playing field. "The internet is not, and never has been, 'neutral' in the traffic flows that affect how customers experience the services offered by different edge providers," AT&T wrote.

"For example, Google, Amazon, and Netflix have spent billions of dollars on content delivery networks (CDNs) that enable them to outperform less well-financed rivals that have not obtained similar functionality."

While the internet groups enjoy great advantages in advertising, R&D and their ability to pay top salaries, AT&T added, "no one suggests that the government should intervene to level out those sources of competitive inequality among edge providers".

Likewise, Comcast remarked in its reply comment that "no one is credibly calling for utility-style regulation of the internet economy simply because Apple products were not available on Amazon for a time, or because Apple and Amazon only very recently reached an agreement to make the Amazon Prime Video app available on the Apple TV platform after years of holdout."

The cable operator denied that it has ever throttled Netflix traffic, and presented its X1 Pay-TV, DVR and app platform as a melting pot for internet video. Comcast gave Netflix a spot on X1 last year, and said it will integrate Google's YouTube and Dish Network Corp.'s (DISH) Sling TV into the platform.

Apple, on the other hand, specifically urged Pai not to roll back an existing ban against so-called ''fast lanes'', which might allow broadband providers someday to charge for faster delivery of tech companies' movies, music or other content.

Apple doesn't take an explicit position on the legal issue at hand - if the FCC should protect the open internet by treating telecom giants similar to utilities. That's the current net neutrality approach that Pai - with the backing of companies like AT&T and Comcast - hopes to scrap. Instead, the iPhone maker only shares its more general views about the need for net neutrality safeguards.

''Broadband providers should not block, throttle, or otherwise discriminate against lawful websites and services,'' Apple said in its comments. ''Far from new, this has been a foundational principle of the FCC's approach to net neutrality for over a decade. Providers of online goods and services need assurance that they will be able to reliably reach their customers without interference from the underlying broadband provider.

''Lifting the current ban on paid prioritization arrangements could allow broadband providers to favor the transmission of one provider's content or services (or the broadband provider's own online content or services) over other online content, fundamentally altering the internet as we know it today - to the detriment of consumers, competition, and innovation,'' Apple said.

Pai has not given a timeline for the FCC coming out with new rules. He had announced his plan to roll back net neutrality rules in April, saying this will promote competition, create jobs, and give more Americans access to high-speed internet.

"Nothing about the internet was broken in 2015," he said, speaking of when the FCC moved to regulate the internet as a public utility under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. "It was all about politics."

Pai, who has called the internet "the greatest free market success in history," said he wants to go back to the internet rules instituted in 1996 under President Clinton and a Republican Congress.

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