With yesterday’s FCC ruling, broadband providers are now classified as Title II common carriers. This is a Good Thing.
To understand the importance of this ruling, it’s helpful to look at another industry that was affected by common carriage laws, and compare the situation then with the situation now. I’m talking about the US rail industry in the 1800’s. At that point in time, there were two ways of moving people and goods around: by boat and by train. Trains were the new-fangled technology of the time, and they provided efficient transit to places without navigable waterways. In short, if there wasn’t an ocean or large river nearby, you needed a train to move things around.
This put the railway companies in a good position. Many places were served by a single rail operator, and that operator was free to charge whatever it wanted. Many could not resist the temptation of doing so. If a rail operator had a grudge against company A, then they could charge company A a higher rate. If company B had a high profit margin on a specific type of freight, the rail operator could charge more to ship that particular type of freight. This was price gouging at it’s finest, if you happen to be into that sort of thing.
Common carrier laws leveled the playing field. A ton of freight became a ton of freight, and everyone paid according to a common pricing structure. In other words, these laws served the interest of the general public.
Today’s new-fangled technology is the internet, and broadband carriers play a similar role to the railroads of the 1800’s; the internet is what moves `goods’ from companies to consumers. Common carrier rules level the playing field — they prevent carrier discrimination, so that a megabyte of data is a megabyte of data, no matter what that data is, or where it came from.
There’s ample documentation of broadband carriers engaging in discriminatory practices. For example: Verizon throttling Netflix, and Comcast throttling Bittorrent. The common carrier designation for broadband providers is well-deserved, and it’s also in the public interest.
Unfortunately, the FCC’s ruling doesn’t require broadband providers to “unbundle” the last mile. Unbundling would require broadband carrier to offer wholesale access to their networks; this would make it possible for someone to start a regional or municipal ISP, and deliver service over (say) Verizon’s wires. We don’t get this from the FCC’s ruling, so there’s more work to do.
Of course, the ISPs haven’t been silent. Yes, Title II puts companies like Verizon under the guide of the Telecommunications Act of 1934. However, we’re really talking about putting a lid on discriminatory corporate practices; and those have been around far longer than any telecommunications law. Yes, technology outpaces lawmakers and regulators. With the Title II classification, I like to think that the regulators have caught up just a little bit.
US broadband is in a dismal state, and has been for years. Out of 34 OECD member countries, the US is 21st in median download speed (13 mbit/second), and 13th in average download speed (48 mbit/second). We also have the 4th highest costs (only Turkey, Chile and Mexico have more expensive broadband than the United State does). Contrast this with South Korea, where the median download speed is 75 mbit/second, and costs $16.35 a month.
Yesterday’s FCC ruling is a step in the right direction, but we still have a long way to go.