The nation's network neutrality drama isn’t over: the FCC’s landmark rules are in court again—after courts threw out two previous FCC net neutrality orders. But there is a little-known front in the fight that has long been central to advancing network neutrality: the commitments that broadband companies make when they merger.
For the last decade, while the court kept throwing out industry-wide rules, network neutrality advocates (like me) were able to extract merger conditions to preserve an open Internet and further entrench the concept. In 2005, AT&T and Verizon each made two-year network neutrality merger commitments; in 2006, AT&T and BellSouth made a 30-month open Internet commitment; in 2011, Comcast and NBC made a 7-year commitment. As someone who has spent10 years fighting for network neutrality, I have seen these commitments pave the way for the new, even-stronger industry-wide rule now on appeal.
Today, we have another merger, which means, thanks to our successes, another network neutrality condition on offer. Charter, a relatively small cable company, is buying the second-largest provider, Time Warner Cable, and an affiliated company called Bright House Networks. Charter’s merger sales pitch is pretty straight-forward: it argues that it has always been too small to bully Internet companies, TV makers, and its own customers, so it has“un-cable” practices they hope to extend. The slowest speed the company usually offers is 60 Mbits, which is great for online TV, and Charter has no data caps, usage-based charges, or modem-rental fees. Charter also posts a laudable no-cost interconnection policy for Internet backbone companies, and Charter has never been accused of any network-neutrality violations.
Still, we must “trust, but verify.” We need to ensure that Charter will not lose its way after taking over Time Warner and becoming four times larger. That’s where merger commitments come in. In its legal application filed today with the FCC, Charter makes its case that the merger will benefit the public, and offers several legally enforceable commitments. The FCC will review the application, along with the initial commitments made, likely for the next six months, with input from the public.
Charter hired me—which, to be honest, took some humility on its part since I have helped lead public campaigns against cable companies like Charter—to advise it in crafting its commitment to network neutrality. After our negotiation, I can say Charter is offering the strongest network neutrality commitments ever offered—in any merger or, to my knowledge, in any nation. In fact, in the end, I personally wrote the commitments. For the first time, I’d like to lay out what those commitments are and why I think they is so strong
1. Accepting the FCC Order
When the FCC’s network neutrality order was issued, net-neutrality advocates broke out in hosannas and praise, calling them the “strongest open Internet rules to date,” and “the biggest victory for the public interest in the agency’s history.”
Charter is accepting almost all of the order—the bright line rules and interconnection mandates. (We will get to the “general conduct rule,” where Charter is accepting a variation.) The FCC’s order flat-out prohibits technical blocking, discrimination, and paid prioritization in impressively sweeping, “bright-line” language. In addition to the bright-line bans, the FCC asserted authority to hear complaints regarding interconnection disputes to ensure reasonable practices. The companies affected, including Netflix, Cogent, and Level 3, support the standard and struck deals with AT&T, Verizon, and Comcast. So the standard has been changing the market and working so far, and the first complaint, filed this week, will help define what’s legal and what isn’t.
Read the full piece at Wired.