Most Americans have no idea what net neutrality means or is supposed to accomplish, even though plenty has been written on the topic.
And some people, even a few informed Internet activists, remain unconvinced that the current debate over net neutrality matters that much. They wonder whether the so-called Title II reclassification of Internet providers will really result in more affordable and available broadband.
What specifically is up for debate now is Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal to regulate broadband Internet providers like utilities by reclassifying them under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, among other actions. The full five-member FCC is set to vote on the issue Feb. 26.
Wheeler's plan has come under fire by many providers who believe it will add too much FCC review, costing them time and money and quashing interest in making long-term network investments. Proponents favor the approach as a way to keep the Internet open to allow all kinds of new services and applications, some of them coming from smaller companies. Some dream that video applications could emerge to allow holographic in-home remote medical screenings, for example -- assuming enough people have fast Internet connections.
Wheeler's plan, more specifically, would prevent Internet providers -- both wired and wireless -- from throttling or blocking lawful content or services and from taking payments for prioritizing content. The plan would also let so-called "interconnection" content providers like Netflix see how their Internet providers are operating the networks to handle congestion. Netflix and others in the category would then be able to complain to the FCC about how their traffic is being handled.
Attorney Blair Levin, currently the executive director of Gig.U and a former FCC chief of staff, has been following the recent debate, although he isn't directly involved in it. Levin led the FCC's effort to write the National Broadband Plan in 2011, and so far isn't reassured that however the FCC votes on Feb. 26 there will be more affordable and abundant broadband in the U.S.
"Wheeler's proposal has genuine merits, but all he's doing is clarifying the FCC's legal authority to prevent blocking, throttling and paid prioritization of traffic and to require Internet providers to provide transparency as to their data practices," Levin said in an interview.
"It's not an irrelevant proposal, but we're really debating how to retain the status quo, and nobody is saying the status quo is horrible and we have to change it. The current law just won't allow the FCC to protect the status quo."
In other words, Internet providers haven't gotten away for long with the harms being addressed, such as blocking and throttling. "There have been two examples that everybody points to where there was a violation of net neutrality and where government action was warranted," Levin noted.
In each case, the FCC had "no legal authority to act and was successful both times. That is not an argument against Title II [reclassification], but merely an historical irony," Levin said. "We are debating giving the FCC legal authority [under Title II] when the FCC has managed without it. I'd say the Title II change needs to be done, but it's just not all that needs to be done."
In the first of the two commonly-mentioned cases, the FCC in 2005 found that Madison River Communications blocked the use of Vonage Voice over IP (VoIP) services to some Madison River customers. Madison River paid a $15,000 fine and agreed not to block VoIP services on its network.
In the second case, the FCC said in 2008 that Comcast was arbitrarily throttling BitTorrent traffic, in violation of FCC principals, and ordered it to stop.
In 2010, the FCC under Chairman Julius Genachowski released an Open Internet Order to prohibit blocking and to protect Internet openness. As the FCC notes on its website, the no-blocking rules in the Order were vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia in early 2014. That Appeals court decision triggered much of the current debate.
While Levin contended the FCC has been successful in the past in regulating net neutrality, there's little question Wheeler and many others want to assert the FCC's authority to preserve neutrality in light of the Court of Appeals decision. Even Levin agrees the Wheeler approach is needed, though more need to be done.
"The FCC needs to articulate a deployment agenda for broadband in combination with the states and cities," Levin said. "Some of that was in the Broadband Plan. Some goals have been set, but we have to have a strategy and tactics to get to affordable and abundant broadband and it's not clear what those are."
While some of the strategies and tactics might come after next week's vote, they could take a while.
Meanwhile, Levin said the real excitement in broadband deployments is already happening, especially in cities like the Kansas City area where city officials on the Kansas and Missouri sides of the city are working in partnership with Google Fiber. In other locales, Google Fiber has spurred interest in providing high-speed Internet by fiber optic competitors like AT&T and Century Link.
As an example, North Carolina communities are getting proposals from Google and AT&T and other companies, which means "it may end being the most competitive fiber center in North America," Levin said.
Also, the organization Levin runs, Gig.U., is devoted to bring high-speed Internet to areas around college campuses like the UC2B project at the University of Illinois and nearby communities of Champaign and Urbana. "It's going to take a lot of local leadership to get affordable abundance of broadband and that's most important," Levin said. "It will be a lot of work in the trenches."
Because there is so much potential bandwidth with fiber, overall costs can be lowered, too. "Market forces will drive all kinds of things so that bandwidth will never be a constraint on social progress and will be ever-present, like electricity," Levin said.
The current debate at the FCC is really a "debate about authority and it has genuine merits, but my focus is elsewhere," Levin said.
"I think it's great that Americans want no blocking and throttling and I'm perfectly fine with that," he concluded. "But when we wake up on Feb. 27, I hope we all realize we still have to move to a competitive framework that gives affordable, abundant broadband over a long period."