On Net Neutrality 'Day of Action,' Carriers Stand By Their Opposition To Regulating Broadband Providers As Utilities

The nation's largest telecom providers, who have in the past opposed net neutrality regulations, weighed in on Wednesday's high-profile "Net Neutrality Day of Action" in support of an open internet while rejecting the FCC's reclassification of internet service providers.

More than 80,000 tech giants, websites, and activists took to the internet to take part in the online protest against the Federal Communications Commission's plans to reverse the Title II classification of internet service providers as telecommunications carriers. The telecom heavyweights also voiced their support for the idea of an open internet, including Dallas-based AT&T.

AT&T acknowledged that its support for Net Neutrality's Day of Action could be seen as an "anomaly," but the carrier said in a blog post that it has long embraced the idea that "an open internet is critical for ensuring freedom of expression and a free flow of ideas and commerce in the United States and around the world." However, the carrier wants to get rid of the current Title II regulations. In their place, AT&T wants Congress to "pass a law to ensure consumers are always protected and all internet companies compete on a level playing field under a single set of rules."

[Related: What A Trump Presidency Could Mean For Net Neutrality, Cybersecurity And Telecom Consolidation]

Tech companies in favor of net neutrality who want to keep the current FCC rules in place include Amazon, Google, Facebook, Netflix, and Twitter.

The principle of net neutrality came under fire in May when the FCC, led by Republican Ajit Pai, announced its move to repeal the Title II regulations. The FCC's Open Internet Order, which contained reclassification of internet service providers as telecom carriers under Title II of the Communications Act, was passed in 2015 by a 3-2 vote under the leadership of Tom Wheeler, the former FCC chairman appointed by President Barack Obama.

The FCC's Open Internet Order states that broadband providers should not interfere with consumers or companies that are using connectivity to access apps, websites and web services, even if those services compete with the broadband providers directly. The regulations also reclassified broadband internet providers as "Title II common carriers," deeming their services a public utility, and allowing them to be regulated as such.

Channel partners told CRN in November following the election of President Donald Trump that the new administration could impact existing policies and "relax" net neutrality regulations. The majority of the telecom providers have stated that while in favor of an open internet, they are not behind the Title II designation.

Basking Ridge, N.J.-based Verizon, for one,  said that while it "respects and applauds" the companies and people taking part in the Day of Action, the answer doesn't lie in imposing utility regulations on internet providers.

Will Johnson, senior vice president of federal regulatory and legal affairs for Verizon also said in a statement that the carrier supports the open internet. "The open internet is good for consumers and critical for our business," he said. 

Cable giant Comcast published similar sentiments as Verizon on Wednesday. The Philadelphia-based company said that although it supports the Day of Action and an open internet, that the reclassification of service providers isn't the same as internet fairness.

"Our business practices ensure full protections for our customers and the public, and will continue to do so no matter which direction the FCC ultimately decides to go with its Open Internet regulations … that ISPs like Comcast will block or throttle lawful content are simply untrue. You can have strong and enforceable open Internet protections without relying on rigid, innovation-killing utility regulation," said David Cohen, Comcast's senior executive vice president and chief diversity officer.

The FCC, under Chairman Pai, now says that rolling back the so-called net neutrality rules will boost investment in broadband and new technology once regulation is removed. However, telecom providers have since said that the regulations haven't blocked their investment plans.

Comcast in 2016 said that its fears around reclassification were based on "what [the regulations] could have meant, more than what it actually meant. Cable giant Charter also told its investors last year that the regulations "hasn't hurt us."

CenturyLink in a public policy blog post on Wednesday cheered the FCC for "appropriately reconsidering" the Title II reclassification order.

"An excessive regulatory regime, like Title II – designed for monopoly telephone companies, not broadband providers – hampers our progress," the Monroe, La.-based carrier said. "Expanding infrastructure and innovating to bring the benefits of broadband access to all Americans should be our focus, not the changing winds of Washington, D.C., and regulation."

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