What AT&T's Latest Scheme Would Mean for American Consumers

In January, a German court ruled that the Internet is an “essential” part of life.

"The Internet plays a very important role today and affects the private life of an individual in very decisive ways,” said a court spokeswoman. “Therefore loss of use of the Internet is comparable to the loss of use of a car."

Yet here in the United States, the Federal Communications Commission is considering ending its regulatory oversight of our nation’s most critical telecommunications infrastructure — including the broadband connections that provide Internet access.

To get a sense of what that would mean, imagine if the U.S. Department of Transportation and all state-level departments of transportation got rid of their authority to oversee road construction and sold our nation’s highways to E-Z Pass.

How could this be? Enter AT&T, the great monopolist of the 20th and 21st centuries.

Last year, on the same day that AT&T announced plans to invest $14 billion to deploy next-generation wired and wireless broadband networks to 99 percent of the country, the company asked the FCC to remove all state and federal regulatory oversight of its communications services.

AT&T told the FCC that the agency’s rules prevent it from deploying next-generation networks. Of course, AT&T didn’t come out directly and say it wants to be free to gouge its customers, extort its competitors, or stop providing reliable 911 access. No, AT&T did what it does best — relying on a mix of diversion and deception to portray this request as an honest desire to invest in its network more efficiently.

But the truth is there for anyone who cares to look.

In reality, AT&T wants to remove any rules that protect consumers in a communications market that is a monopoly for millions of Americans. All but the most diehard “free” market fundamentalists in Congress would be a little skeptical of a plan that throws the Communications Act in the garbage and leaves their constituents without any legal protections. So AT&T is attempting to exploit an FCC-created loophole to get out of the company’s public interest obligations.

This loophole exists because AT&T previously convinced the FCC that the otherwise unremarkable transition from old-school networks capable of carrying relatively little data (“narrowband”) to cable and fiber networks that carry much more (“broadband”) means the company no longer has public interest obligations to fulfill.

When the FCC made that decision, it kept its requirement mandating that companies meet public interest obligations for basic telephone service. It also retained authority to craft consumer protections like its Net Neutrality rules (though that authority is being contested in court). But AT&T persuaded the FCC that any time broadband providers like itself offer a service using “IP” (Internet protocol) technology, that service should not be subject to FCC or state utility commission oversight.

Now AT&T is asking the FCC to let it convert its entire network to an “all-IP” system. But because of the FCC’s boneheaded decision, the otherwise natural evolution of this technology could result in a state of total deregulation.

This would be very bad news for Internet users.

AT&T’s request is simply not in the public interest nor consistent with the law, to put it mildly. And if the FCC blesses AT&T’s plan without first closing the loophole that plan builds on, the agency will place the nation’s essential communications infrastructure exclusively in the hands of for-profit, monopolistic and untrustworthy corporations.

For the typical consumer, the grant of AT&T’s wishes would mean disaster: no protections from price gouging, no accountability for service outages, no consumer protections from “cramming” and “slamming,” no reasonable access for people with disabilities and no reliable access to emergency services. It could even lead to major airline disasters.

In its argument to the FCC, AT&T is conflating online content with the Internet connections that carry that content. And the company is claiming that only monopolies (as if AT&T wasn’t one) need to pay attention to consumer protections.

Those arguments are dangerous to the public interest. The transmission infrastructure that connects us all to one another — whether that connection takes place over copper wires, cable or fiber lines — is essential infrastructure for the well-being of all Americans. This is the infrastructure that innovators built the Internet on. We need policymakers to recognize that telecommunications regulations and the laws they’re based on exist to ensure interconnection, promote universal service and protect consumer rights.

To co-opt AT&T’s language, we do indeed need a“dialogue” about the transition to a 21st-century network. In fact, this kind of conversation is taking place in many other countries. But let’s not flip a switch and end all regulatory oversight — an action the U.S. alone is contemplating.

Original photo by Flickr user John Loo

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