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Net Neutrality

Net neutrality has surfaced as a major policy issue in recent years. The forerunner of this issue is the idea of Common Carriage: in a town with one boat to ferry passengers across the river, the single boatman cannot charge the butcher more than he charges the carpenter for carrying passengers. Similarly, net neutrality posits that there can be no fast lanes or tollbooths to accelerate data packet transmission across Internet pipelines. From a historical perspective, the relevant framework was set by the 1934 Communications Act, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt, which aimed to treat radio and wire communication technology the same as railways and interstate commerce. The revised version was the 1996 Telecommunications Act which had the intent to deregulate as it required incumbent telecom carriers to provide interconnectedness or access to the network so that regional companies could enter the longdistance market.

The problem with this regulation was technology itself. The regulation focused on intra-modal technologies rather than inter-modal ones with technologies that provided the same function being treated differently. This dilemma is similar to that faced by the financial industry when regulation is by institution or historical product classification rather than across functional lines. Applying this idea to DCT the implication would be that all content transmitted across broadband pipelines should be treated the same and be subject to the same rules. Note that broadband refers to all digital transmission technologies, whether wireless, wire line, etc. However, in addition to telecommunications, broadband companies also process and store data, and offer security and spam protection.

There is reason to think the lines between wireless and wire line are beginning to blur, as mobile broadband service is becoming an increasingly effective substitute for wired broadband. When that happens fully, any wireless company will be able to offer a package of wireless phone, broadband, television and home phone service - putting companies like ATT in the same businesses as cable companies like Comcast. At the same time, cable companies are inching closer to the wireless business. Comcast, the biggest cable and wire line broadband provider, already offers home phone service over its cable network. It is aiming to build a nationwide Wi-Fi network that could allow it, with the help of additional access points, to provide national mobile phone service.

On June 14, 2016 US Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has voted 2-1 to uphold FCC rules regulating ISPs under Title II of the 1984 Telecommunications Act, thereby classifying the Internet as a vital communication platform that must be treated as a common network much as the telephone system in the past. Under these rules, carriers cannot selectively block or speed up Internet traffic to consumers [117].

Underscoring the importance of the Internet to economic and social life, the decision written by Judges Davit Tatel and Sri Srinivasan stated that

Indeed, given the tremendous impact third-party [I]nternet content has had on our society, it would be hard to deny its dominance in the broadband experience. Over the past two decades, this content has transformed nearly every aspect of our lives, from profound actions like choosing a leader, building a career, and falling in love to more quotidian ones like hailing a cab and watching a movie. The same assuredly cannot be said for broadband providers’ own add-on applications. [118]

 
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