When the big net neutrality argument was going on not too long ago (and it’s still not over, by the way — Republicans still want to end it and will if they win the White House in November), advocates for a free and open Internet said ending net neutrality would allow internet service providers (ISPs) to setup a “pay-for-play” system for access. Meanwhile, ISPs argued that net neutrality needed to end so they could expand Internet access and that, somehow, a free and open Internet (just like it’s been since the moment it changed the world forever) was somehow “stifling innovation.”
Basically, what net neutrality prevents is big ISPs like AT&T, Comcast, Time Warner and others from being able to throttle the speeds you pay for to websites that won’t “pay up” for faster access. Obviously, ISPs want to end net neutrality so they can do what they were trying to do before the FCC classified the Internet as a utility, by charging a company like Netflix more to have their services delivered at usable speeds. Of course, that will eventually lead to companies like Netflix raising prices and passing those costs on to consumers.
If you’re still confused, here’s an article I wrote explaining what net neutrality is.
Another big concern tied to a lot of this has been the monopolizing of the industry via huge mergers between these massive telecommunications companies. Perhaps the most infamous example of this was the failed attempt by AT&T to buy T-Mobile. Eventually, AT&T was able to buy DirecTV. Although DirecTV doesn’t provide Internet services directly, one of the stipulations for the approval of that merge was that AT&T would have to provide affordable Internet access to poor Americans.
As a condition for AT&T’s merger with DirecTV, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) requires that it offer $5 or $10 internet service to people on the SNAP low-income assistance program. If internet speeds were between 3-5 Mbps, folks would pay $5 per month, or $10 per month for speeds between 5-10 Mbps. So, if speeds are lower than 3 Mbps, do folks then pay $5 per month or less?
Not according to AT&T. When the NDIA asked the company to apply the program to neighborhoods with speeds of 1.5 Mbps, it refused. “AT&T is not prepared to expand the low income offer to additional speed tiers beyond those established as a condition of the merger approval,” the company replied in a statement. As a result, poor families that should qualify for the $5 program must pay $30 per month (and more after 12 months) for a service well below the definition of “broadband.”
The FCC’s order states that “where AT&T has deployed broadband service at top speeds below 5 Mbps, the company shall offer wireline broadband internet … at speeds of at least 3 Mbps, where technically available, to qualifying households in the company’s wireline footprint for no more than $5 per month.”
Basically what AT&T is saying is that, while 1.5 Mbps is actually an inferior speed to the 3-10 Mbps speeds the FCC specifically outlined, it will not provide $5-$10 access for poor people who get speeds below 3 Mbps because technically the FCC didn’t specify that it had to — only for poor residents who can get speeds of at least 3 Mbps.
What’s ironic about this is that because AT&T hasn’t invested the money to upgrade these poorer areas, it’s childishly using this loophole to avoid providing much-needed affordable Internet access to poor families (and children who desperately need the Internet for school work) entirely based on a technicality in the FCC’s requirements.
It’s the business equivalent of saying “I’m not touching you!” while you have your finger one inch from someone’s face.
Sure, technically, AT&T is right in that the FCC’s decision didn’t specify anything that must be done for speeds below 3 Mbps. Therefore, a household that’s only able to receive a 1.5 Mbps connection doesn’t technically qualify. But this is one of those situations where having the “right” to do something doesn’t mean what you’re doing is right. This is an example where a multi-billion dollar telecommunications giant could choose to do the right thing, yet has decided to screw tens of thousands of poor families simply because it can.
Hopefully AT&T steps up to do the right thing. However, based on what I know about the company, I definitely won’t be holding my breath.