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Net Neutrality: Not So Neutral Anymore

The future fate of the Internet took a giant step forward today when the federal appeals court ruled in favor of Comcast Corporation that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) does not have the authority “to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks” (Source: www.nytimes.com).

A full two-and-a-half-years after Comcast was accused of illegally “throttling” certain types of Internet traffic amongst its users, the ruling issued today has major implications for the entire global communications industry and, really, just about any company relying on the Internet to differentiate itself in the marketplace.

The appeals court’s ruling will affect the FCC’s proposed national broadband plan that it is currently mulling over. Some believe it will prompt them to declare that all regulation of broadband companies falls under Title 2 (rather than 1), which would give them broader authority to impose net neutrality regulations over service providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T.

Whichever path the FCC decides to take forward for its net neutrality plans, it is looking like any further regulatory activity by the FCC over the country’s providers will need more support from Congress, which could complicate and slow things even further.

The ruling itself is of course a victory for Comcast and other broadband providers like it who don’t like the idea that they can’t control and manage their networks the way they need to to stay competitive.

On the flip side, though, the means for remaining the provider-of-choice in the eyes of consumers these days hangs more heavily than ever on showing customers that their broadband access won’t be restricted or curtailed without a good reason. A combination of Comcast’s net neutrality battle bringing the issue in to the public sphere of consciousness, AT&T’s well-documented network congestion problems and their impetus on an industry-wide move to tiered pricing plans for mobile broadband, and the FCC’s bold new statement of intent with its national broadband plan have made customers drastically more savvy about the broadband services they consume. Providers will need to be open with their customers about their traffic management policies to keep them coming back.

Ultimately, today’s ruling means a continuation of the status quo for the broadband industry for the time being.  It does also have huge implications for the FCC’s net neutrality intentions, and may perhaps even derail them entirely. But it certainly won’t keep the FCC from trying.

Nate Hubbell

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