The effect of net neutrality change is unknown

After a meeting voting to end net neutrality, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai answers a question from a reporter on Dec. 14 in Washington.
After a meeting voting to end net neutrality, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Ajit Pai answers a question from a reporter on Dec. 14 in Washington. AP

The Federal Communications Commission voted on Dec. 14 to repeal net neutrality rules aimed at regulating business practices of Internet Service Providers and while Comcast — Centre County’s and the country’s largest provider — is vowing not to change service, consumers have a reason to be cautious.

The FCC is directed by five commissioners who are appointed by the president and confirmed by the Senate. Since President Donald Trump took office, he filled two vacancies and elevated Ajit Pai to chairman. Trump’s moves gave the FCC a Republican majority.

With control of the FCC, the Republicans formulated a plan to repeal the net neutrality rules drafted and implemented during the Obama administration. The rules restricted ISPs from slowing down speeds of certain websites and prevented the providers from offering paid access to “fast lanes,” which would guarantee consistent streaming speeds for websites such as Netflix.

The recent change to the rules comes as no surprise, according to Rob Frieden, telecommunications law professor at Penn State.

“This issue really sort of divides political parties and political philosophy on something that, from my perspective, doesn’t have to be political,” Frieden said. “The Republicans, who are now the majority at the FCC, are very much intent on deregulating and pretty much undoing anything that the prior Democratic administration did.”

One of the more public spats between an ISP and a website came at the end of 2013 and continued into 2014. As Comcast and Netflix negotiated a financial agreement to allow the video streaming website direct access to the largest broadband network in the nation, Netflix customers began to experience a decline in streaming speed.

“All the customer knew was, one day the videos flowed seamlessly and the next day they bogged down,” Frieden said. “Comcast cuts a deal with Netflix and then overnight the problem evaporates.”

Comcast vehemently denied, and continues to deny, any instances of slowing or “throttling” back the speed of the service it delivers from specific websites, but Frieden doesn’t buy it.

“If you were to interview somebody at Comcast, they would say, ‘We would never do that, we would never harm traffic. We’re in the business of delivering traffic not slowing it down,’ ” Frieden said. “But the smoking gun, as far as I’m concerned, is the Netflix case.”

Comcast has devoted a section of its corporate website to the issue. This is where consumers can explore blog posts and court filings that support the company’s belief in an open internet. It’s also where Bob Grove, vice president of public relations for the northeast division, which includes Centre County, will likely send you for answers.

A visit to the website earlier this year would have revealed five net neutrality bullet points that said Comcast “won’t” block access to lawful content or throttle back the speed at which content comes to its customers. The bullet points also claimed that the company doesn’t prioritize internet traffic or create paid fast lanes, but in April the bullet points changed.

Now the company simple states, “We do not block, slow down or discriminate against lawful content.” The company also pledges full transparency and says they are for “sustainable and legally enforceable” net neutrality protections for its customers.

Grove did not respond to a request for an explanation for the change.

“Cable television companies and wireless carries have a pretty bad history of customer service,” Frieden said. “And with this decision it wouldn’t surprise me if any of these carriers play loose and free with our data and play loose and free with the opportunity to speed up traffic and slow down traffic. There’s a real potential for harm to the customer.”

The changes to the net neutrality rules have yet to take effect. Immediately following the decision, consumer groups and state attorneys general, including Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro, threatened legal action that will likely commence after the FCC officially publishes the new rules in the Federal Registry. The FCC has not yet released a timeline on implementation of the changes.

Leon Valsechi: 814-231-4631, @leon_valsechi