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Net Neutrality: The Future, Implications and What You Can Do

26 May 2015 by Scott Sterling

Although it has dominated the talk of network service providers for more than a year, the fight over net neutrality is only getting started.

The near future

New rules from the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) go into effect on June 12. Those rules essentially reclassify Internet Service Providers (ISPs) as utilities similar to phone companies — they cannot block, throttle or prioritize content in exchange for payments. These rules will only affect companies who provide retail access to the Internet. Other facets of the Internet, like network providers or web applications, are not affected.

Broadband providers are not happy about the new rules, and they will be exercising every legal option they have to postpone or rewrite the FCC’s stance.

The first step broadband providers may take is finding a way of being granted a stay of implementation of the rules. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association and the American Cable Association, among others, have already filed petitions with the FCC itself, which is required before they can sue for a stay in court. The grounds of the petitions tend to be the avalanche of lawsuits the groups filed in April against the new rules. They want to see those legal issues resolved, one way or the other, before the rules can go into effect.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit— the second-highest court in the country — will hear these lawsuits, as well as the inevitable motion for a stay. “The rules were designed to hold up to litigation,” said FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

The distant future

If they do not — meaning the appeals court takes the side of the providers and strikes down the reclassification and the rules — the 2016 election may play a part. The new president will be appointing many players in the game, including some that could decide whether the case ever makes it to the Supreme Court. Another route would be a law coming from Congress blocking the rules. Even though Republicans hold both the House and the Senate, any law would have to pass a presidential veto.

“Any law that is designed to prevent net neutrality is, by definition, tortuous interference with several companies’ businesses,” said Howard M. Cohen, a 30-year veteran of the IT industry. “Who is the government to tell me how to operate my infrastructure? I installed it, I paid for the right-of-way, and now you want to change the rules? And because of the impact to all, it will be a mammoth class action suit. A network, any network, is as fast as its slowest link. If I want to be that slowest link, I absolutely can be, but it will make me less competitive without reducing my costs, so why do it?”

It’s unclear whether the ISPs would elect to take either route. It depends on what happens in the appeals court and grounds used in the decision.

What happens if the rules hold up? The Internet remains the open, relatively free gathering place that thousands of businesses have built their strategies around, without having to factor in ISP cost interference.

What can service providers do now?

The time to give input in these proceedings has passed. It never hurts to shoot the FCC an email of support, but their work is done (except for their legal team).

What you can do is start leveraging this uncertainty as a sale proposition. First, take advantage of this renewed focus on net neutrality and the role of ISPs in your marketing programs. Offering a free consultation to nervous customers could be more effective now. In your consulting presentations, make sure to provide analysis on where a customer’s network stands regarding the new rules and what is at stake.

Finally, stay informed. As net neutrality makes its inevitable way through the legal and political system, some of the steps might seem a little esoteric. They are cogs in the bigger machine of what the Internet will look like moving forward.