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Net Neutrality Bill Is Nuclear Option, Says NCTA's Michael Powell

Michael Powell, president of NCTA – The Internet & Television Association, took aim at new legislation unveiled Thursday, the latest effort to classify internet access as a Title II telecommunications service, or what Powell calls "the nuclear option."

Saying the effort would "slap an outdated and burdensome regulatory regime on broadband networks," Powell argued the result would be to damage the "mission to deploy next-generation internet technology throughout America and get everyone connected." The Biden Administration is investing tens of billions of dollars into that mission.

"Twenty years into an increasingly stale debate over net neutrality, the justifications for it seem increasingly limp," said Powell, who as FCC Chairman oversaw an initial statement of open internet principles, though a court later ruled that it was not an enforceable regime.

Also: Sen. Markey to Introduce Net Neutrality Bill

"The breathless assertions over the years that the internet is gravely threatened because ISPs would block or throttle traffic and erect toll booths to charge internet companies to reach consumers have proven hollow and unrealized," Powell continued in a statement following the bill's unveiling in a Zoom call, with plans to answer questions via Reddit. "The claim that ISPs would not invest in expanding capacity and speed wilts in the shadow of massive expansion to gigabit networks today with efforts driving rapidly to 10G networks in a few years," he argued.

Add in the "massive expansion" of wireless networks, he said, and the reality on the ground "hardly align(s) with the corroded narrative that ISPs are motivated to create scarcity on their networks to hold internet companies or consumers hostage."

"The case is particularly thin to justify the famed 'nuclear option' to reclassify carriers under Title II utility regulation which empowers the FCC with the authority to go big on new regulation."

It is the nuclear option because while Republicans have supported net neutrality rules against blocking, throttling and anti-competitive paid prioritization, doing so under Title II is a nonstarter on that side of the aisle and may not have everyone on the other side, either.

Powell said it was time to focus on building out broadband, not "taking a ride on the net neutrality carousel for the umpteenth time for no discernable reason." 

Powell's sentiments were echoed by Jonathan Spalter, president of USTelecom. 

"Broadband providers support net neutrality and already operate under these important principles while delivering real value and performance to customers. Providers are making critical investments at record highs even as prices continue to drop. Especially during a period of inflation, this is an incredible success story," he said. "There is bipartisan support for net neutrality, but legislative proposals that would put any of this progress at risk are not the right answer. Let’s keep our focus on moving consumers’ internet experiences forward, not backward."

"Net Neutrality may be a mixed bag, but common carrier regulation would inhibit competition, private investment and innovation, and further confound the complex task of eradicating of the digital divide," said Eric Slee, VP of government affairs for WISPA, the wireless internet service providers association. 

Slee says "the specter of open access, service and rate regulation, among other Title II mandates, would result in fewer solutions and deployment growth in the very areas most in need of it."■

John Eggerton
John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.