As part of Diane's remote author interview series, she had the chance to speak with Ann Patchett in January over video Zoom as a live audience watched. Here's that conversation.
Easy and fast access to the Internet has become critical to everyday life—so critical, many say, Internet access providers should be regulated as utilities. On Monday, President Obama agreed. He called on the FCC to create “the strongest possible rules” to require broadband service providers to treat all internet data the same, barring a fast lane for some types of content. But some argue regulation of the up-to-now unfettered environment will stifle innovation and undercut consumer interests. Please join us for an update on the debate over net neutrality.
- Cecilia Kang Reporter, The Washington Post.
- Marvin Ammori Attorney in private practice, affiliate scholar, Stanford Law School's Center for Internet & Society,
- Rob Atkinson President, The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation
- Gigi Sohn Special counsel for external affairs, Federal Communications Commission
Video: Behind The Net Neutrality Debate
This New York Times video breaks down what’s at stake in the Net Neutrality debate.
Watch: President Obama On Net Neutrality
On Nov. 10, President Barack Obama urged the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to protect net neutrality.
Poll Results: Who Supports Net Neutrality?
MS. DIANE REHMThanks for joining us. I'm Diane Rehm. It's up to the FCC to decide whether and how internet service providers should be regulated. But earlier this week, President Obama threw his support to those who believe the industry has become an essential service, and should be classified and regulated as a utility.
MS. DIANE REHMOpponents argue government oversight will reduce innovation and limit value to users. Joining me for the latest on the net neutrality debate, Rob Atkinson of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, Cecilia with the Washington Post, Marvin Ammori, an attorney in private practice, and Gigi Sohn of the FCC. I hope you'll join us, 800-433-8850. Weigh in with your own opinion, send us an email to email@example.com, follow us on Facebook or Twitter. And welcome to all of you.
MS. GIGI SOHNThank you, Diane.
MR. MARVIN AMMORIThank you.
MR. ROB ATKINSONThank you.
MS. CECILIA KANGIt's great to be here, Diane.
REHMGood to see you. Cecilia, if I could start with you. President Obama has talked about this before, but he -- his comments this time were particularly pointed, I thought.
KANGThat's right, Diane. President Obama has actually talked about this issue, net neutrality, since 2008, since he was campaigning for president the first time. And it is really, in fact, the only big tech issue that he's actually really campaigning on and made comments about, and with an issue that he says he supports. And he has intermittently commented on his continued support of this. But this week he made a statement. And he issued a statement calling for very specific things that he wants out of a net neutrality rule.
KANGAnd he said, "I want the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality." And most importantly, the thing that's getting everybody excited is the idea that he has posed -- his suggestion to the FCC that they classify broadband services as a utility service, a common-carrier service, under what's known under the Telecommunications Act as Title II. And that's actually sort of the crux of the big debate, because that's a very specific thing that he's outlined and something that in an issue -- and that an idea that has drawn fierce opposition, as well as fierce support for that idea.
REHMAnd the FCC has taken a couple of passes on this up to now.
KANGThe FCC has tried several times. The FCC has a long history -- since about 2000 -- you can actually trace this stuff back to 2002 when the FCC decided to classify cable internet as an information service. And that's sort of how this started. But various iterations, actually under Obama a previous chairman that he appointed in 2009, Julius Genachowski, also took a pass at this. His rules that were approved through the FCC were overturned in a court this January, this past January. And that's actually why we are here today, still debating net neutrality. And the FCC is again trying to make new rules.
REHMSo, Rob Atkinson, as president of the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, explain the difference for us between Level I and Level II classifications.
ATKINSONSo the FCC, under the '96 Act, there are two titles, if you will. There are a number of titles, but one is Title I and that's -- refers to an information service, email for example or computer services. And Title II is a telecommunications service. Think about traditional telephone service, which was tightly regulated because it was a monopoly. Under the Obama administration or until under the Bush administration, under the Clinton administration, there was a consensus that broadband shouldn't be regulated under Title II.
ATKINSONThere are really two parts of the debate, Diane. One is about what should we do. Should we stop? Should we have rules in place that make it so that broadband carriers can't discriminate against content or block content? That's generally -- they all agree to that. They've all made public commitments to that. And importantly, the Supreme Court case that Cecilia talked about, gave the FCC authority, under what's called 706, to do that.
ATKINSONSo the real debate now -- a big part of the debate is should you heavily regulate this under the old framework of the 20th century or should you use a 706 framework, which is what Chairman Wheeler wants to do -- or initially.
REHMAnd to you, Marvin Ammori, Level II is exactly what you and many others want. Explain why.
AMMORIGreat. So Title II is the FCC's main authority. It's what the FCC uses to regulate lots of broadband services today, including broadband offered to businesses, known as enterprise broadband. It regulates mobile wireless service, as well as -- about two million people are served in rural areas under Title II for broadband. So it's a standard, you know, the main authority of the FCC. And the FCC has twice tried to adopt open-internet rules, not under Title II, and were thrown out in court twice and sent back.
AMMORISo I think what Obama was saying was enough is enough. We've heard from the cable companies and the phone companies that don't want net neutrality and don't want something to be stable and upheld in court. And you, Tom Wheeler, should just got Title II. And there has not been a consensus against Title II at all. Title II has been popular among people in favor of net neutrality for over a decade. And there's been support at the highest levels.
REHMSo, Gigi Sohn, as the representative here of the Federal Communications Commission, Tom Wheeler has now heard directly from President Obama. How much more debate do you see going on here?
SOHNWell, let me make a couple things very, very clear just at the outset, Diane, is that Chairman Tom Wheeler, my boss, shares the president's goal. He wants enforceable rules that preserve an open internet, that preserve what the D.C. Circuit called the virtuous cycle of edge providers innovating and consumers buying and broadband providers, you know, innovating it in return. He want -- he is against paid prioritization, which is a lot of what this debate is about.
SOHNThat is, you know, websites and applications paying internet service providers for priority service. He is against blocking of lawful websites. So they share the goals. That being said, the chairman is a head of an agency which is independent from the White House.
SOHNIt is independent in its structure. It doesn't come from any law. It doesn't come from the Constitution. The president nominates the chairman. He is confirmed by the Senate, but the president cannot remove the chairman. So in the FCC structure is insulated from White House pressure. Now do we consult with the White House? Of course. Every independent agency does that. But we are not bound to do exactly what the president says. On the other hand, obviously when the president says something, it carries a lot of weight.
REHMAnd how many votes are there on the FCC?
SOHNThere are five commissioners. So depending on who's in the White House -- and we have a Democrat -- so we have three Democrats and two Republicans. But I think the larger point was even before the president made his statement, we were looking at our record and finding -- and this was reported in the Wall Street Journal, I think the Saturday before the president made the statement -- that our record needed more shoring up -- the record to move forward on anything. Okay. On anything having to do with Title II, on anything having to do with 706, we needed more information and that is the way we are likely to proceed.
REHMSo how much more information do you need? You've had an open comment period for quite a while now. People have been weighing in. The industry says it will be stifled if, in fact, the FCC does impose Title II.
SOHNSo let me give you a couple of examples of things we feel we need more information on. Number one there's been a lot of discussion about whether for the first time the net neutrality rules will level the playing field between mobile wireless and fixed, you know, what Comcast delivers, what Verizon FiOS delivers. We feel we need more on the record to give us the legal grounding to do that.
SOHNFrom outside parties. From people like Marvin's clients.
AMMORII can speak to that.
SOHNI'm glad you can, but if you'd let me finish. The other issue where we feel we need more grounding is on the question of forbearance. So this gets weedy. So let me try to explain it. Okay? Even the president said, "If you are to reclassify, you should not apply all of Title II to broadband, particularly price regulation." Okay? I think there's a lot of hoo-haw made about price regulation. I don't see this or any future FCC -- no matter how liberal the chair -- price regulating. But that's beside the point.
SOHNEverybody agrees. There is a consensus that not all the provisions -- I believe there are 47 provisions of Title II -- should not apply. And that many of them should be forborne from. And the Communications Act gives the FCC great deference and the courts have given the FCC great deference to forbear from provisions they believe will stifle innovation, will stifle growth and will stifle consumer benefit.
SOHNHowever, we don't -- we're not exactly sure whether it be reclassification or this other classification we talked about -- which is part of the hybrid system that had been reported in the Wall Street Journal -- how many of these provisions we should forbear from.
AMMORISo there is an ample record to move immediately. There's been a record on this built in 2010, under the last chairman, around things like Title II. And at the beginning -- and on May 15 the chairman put out a notice, a sort of proposal that we all commented on. Four million comments came in. The mass public spoke. And in addition, not only where there four million people speaking up, a lot of lawyers, experts, all of us care about net neutrality filed detailed comments on mobile, on forbearance.
AMMORIThere's a complete record and the chairman was barreling towards a decision in December. And now that it seems like the president wants to do the right thing, he's stalling. It's…
REHMWhy? Why do think he's stalling?
AMMORII don't know. I think that the people who have been in favor of net neutrality, such as Senator Elizabeth Warren and Rockefeller have both called on immediate, expeditious action. Rosen Russell, another Democratic commissioner was on Bloomberg yesterday asking for expeditious action.
REHMSo what's holding up the process?
ATKINSONWell, it's what…
AMMORII don't know. I think he should move immediately. He has a complete record. And if he wants -- if he agrees with the president, he should move right now.
ATKINSONLook, what's holding up the process is that Tom Wheeler's original proposal, which we fully supported, was the right proposal. And the court in the Verizon case, gave them permission to go down the 706 path. What's holding it up now is he feels like groups like Ammori's group are keeping him from doing 706.
REHMAll right. Short break here. When we come we'll talk more, take your calls. I look forward to hearing from you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Four people are here in the studio with me. Cecilia Kang, she's a reporter for the Washington Post, Marvin Ammori, an attorney in private practice. He's with Stanford Law School's Center for Internet and Society. Rob Atkinson is professor of the -- sorry, president of The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. And Gigi Sohn. She's special counsel for external affairs at the Federal Communications Commission.
REHMRob Atkinson, you were saying during the break that really nothing needs to be done.
ATKINSONWell, I wasn't quite saying that. What I was saying, if you look at the 15-year history of broadband in the U.S. there's been one case where there's been a problem. And that was a case called Madison River when the FCC immediately intervened where they were stopping companies -- a company called Vonage from getting to its customers. That's the only case. All the major carriers, Verizon, Comcast, all the rest of them have committed never to block legal content, never to degrade legal content.
ATKINSONIt's a red herring that the other side is doing because what they want is they want a regulated utility model and ultimately they want a government-owned model. That's their game.
REHMHere's an email from Robert on net neutrality. He says, "It's not the types of data that could have a fast lane. It's that some providers of data would have a fast lane at the expense of other providers who could be throttled or stop completely at the whim of these private companies," Marvin.
AMMORIThat's completely true. When you look at the people who have lined up against net neutrality, it's just the big cable and phone companies and the organizations like Rob's that got funding from them. That's it. On the other side what we have is nonprofits, churches, realtors, Etsy sellers, Tumblr, start-up, small businesses across the country.
AMMORIAnd there have been cases. I personally brought a case, probably the biggest net neutrality case versus Comcast for blocking BitTorrent and other peer-to-peer technologies that went to the FCC and was a major important case, the first of two times that the FCC lost an authority in 2010. And that was one of many different examples, and there were violations around the world. This is a necessary rule to protect the open internet.
KANGWell, it's interesting that net neutrality, this idea that was coined and thought up about a decade ago came before Facebook, became (sic) before even people were Google searching that much. But now we're starting to see business models evolve where you can actually see some of these ideas trickle down into real practices and real businesses. And I'll give one example. T-Mobile, for example, has -- is offering some music services that could be played over their wireless internet network for -- that won't count against your data caps.
KANGSo as a consumer the jury's out if that's a good or bad thing for consumers because on the one hand you might think, great, this won't count against my data caps. That's great for me financially. But would that potentially impede a competing music service from -- that doesn't afford -- that can' afford to maybe pay or strike a partnership with T-Mobile or maybe on the wired side like Comcast. Those are the scenarios where we're starting to see things evolve.
SOHNWell, I want to get back to Rob's point about this so called one example. In fact, in 2010 when the Genachowski FCC adopted their regulations, it ultimately go struck down, they gave at least a half dozen examples. But more importantly the court, in striking down those rules, said that indeed that broadband internet service providers are gatekeepers who have both the motivation and the ability to discriminate against edge providers.
SOHNSo this conservative court which struck down our rules basically said, yeah, you know, rules make sense because you have this -- you know, this monopoly power, what some people call a terminating access monopoly. So what do I mean by that? So if Cecilia is an AT&T customer, okay, the only way I can get to Cecilia is through AT&T. So AT&T is a monopoly when it comes to Cecilia. If Marvin's a Verizon customer, Marvin's -- Verizon's a monopoly when it comes to Marvin.
SOHNSo this conservative court said, yes, rules are necessary. They've told us we did the rules wrong. We need to do them another way but they said that the reasons we gave for having these rules were very, very, very well-thought out and, you know, were sustained.
REHMGo ahead, Rob.
ATKINSONPart of the problem with this debate is that it's very complex and you can basically say almost anything. There are no companies that throttle data, as Marvin said. Nobody is -- no company is out there going, I'm going to slow you down. They don't do that.
ATKINSONIn the famous case that Marvin's talking about with what's called the Comcast BitTorrent Case, Comcast did not block anything. In fact, the CEO of BitTorrent, which is a peer-to-peer network for file sharing, the CEO said publically at an ITIF event, he did not want government regulation. And he was able -- his company and Comcast cut a deal where they changed how their bits go through the network because the CEO of BitTorrent admitted that they were making Comcast traffic more problematic for the typical customer.
AMMORISo I think Rob is just trying to throw some fud out there. The FCC found that Comcast was blocking. We proved it.
ATKINSONNo, they did not.
AMMORIThey did. It's in the order. I litigated that decision. I argued that decision. I wrote the complaint in that case. And the CE...
REHMDid they or did they not?
SOHNYes, they did.
ATKINSONThey were slowing up...
AMMORIThe CEO of BitTorrent is a friend of mine and we collaborated the entire time during that case, both CEOs then and now.
REHMCecilia, did they or did they...
KANGThey did, they did.
REHMAll right. I want to read...
ATKINSONThey did not.
AMMORIThey did indeed.
ATKINSONThey slowed uploads and for a good reason...
AMMORINo, they blocked it. It was found. It's a finding in the case.
ATKINSON...and for a good reason. A good reason to do it.
REHMOkay. I want to read this email from Stewart. "Please clarify for us unwashed out here if there is no net neutrality, will my internet service for things such as email and surfing to various websites be slower because some are getting and presumably paying for faster service? It seems to me there's a pipe out there. And if someone gets a bigger chunk for his speed use, my usage will be slowed down," Gigi.
SOHNWell, look, I think these concerns -- and first of all, nobody is unwashed. We've gotten 4 million comments. And every one of those comments is important to this agency. And I think that's really important to emphasize. And again, yes, this is why we want to adopt rules. Are they prophylactic? Yes, although there have been, you know, several documented problems. In fact, my boss sent the letter to Verizon only recently because it was throttling data without informing its customers. It's unlimited customers all of a sudden were being -- unlimited data all of a sudden were being throttled.
SOHNSo my boss -- it doesn't matter. That's broadband, right? So my boss wrote a letter to Verizon's CEO and Verizon stopped the practice. So these practices are happening. Verizon went to court the second time because they wanted to provide priority service. That's what it's all about. So the fears of that gentleman and other folks out there, 4 million people out there are not unfounded. And that's why we're trying to adapt rules to protect an open internet.
ATKINSONLook, this whole debate, I think, misses the point and it treats traffic as the same. It treats email the same as what's called VoIP. In other words, using the internet to make a telephone call, like on Skype. Those are completely different applications and they need different service. If you can't prioritize VoIP, for example, you're going to be on a Skype call and you're going to have jitter, you're going to have latency. You won't be able to talk.
ATKINSONImagine if the cell phone carriers couldn't prioritize your voice call. You will basically not be able to make many voice calls when you're on a cell phone. This notion that prioritization means slow lines just simply is not the case. Most of the traffic that needs prioritization are things like VoIP, which uses about 80 kilobits a second.
ATKINSONSecondly, one last thing, very important point, most of what's going on is not about giving people more speeds. It's about removing what's called jitter, in other words, clumping of bits. You can do that in a way that it doesn't slow down anybody else's traffic. Everybody stays the same except things like VoIP now works.
KANGSo there is already what Rob is describing as discriminary (sic) -- discriminatory sort of traffic in terms of what the actual services are, of course. But what really the debate is about are these bigger business deals that could be struck. It's between, say, Verizon, FIOS and Netflix. Let's just say that Netflix has the money to buy faster access and they get on a fast lane. And suddenly you're provided a much better clearer picture of Netflix videos because they pay their way that way.
KANGSo that's really the debate. It's less -- if you're an emergency service, if you have a 911 call, of course the call's going to go through. That's not really a problem or a dispute right now.
REHMSo explain, Cecilia, what is meant by the last mile?
KANGOh, so the last mile is actually the line literally that's the last mile between your internet service provider, Comcast, AT&T, Verizon to your home, the actual cable that plugs right into your home and then into your modem. And that gives you the internet that you enjoy so much.
KANGThat's the last mile.
REHMAnd here is a tweet from Jim for you, Rob. He says, "Those who say the internet as a public utility would stifle innovation must explain how the public power grid stifles innovation."
ATKINSONWell, there's a couple of big differences. One, generally although it's not -- generally electrons are electrons although that's not completely true. Generally there are electrons. The internet is not one thing. It's not voice. It's a combination of different kinds of services. Each of those services needs different kind of treatment. We see that in cell phones again. The reason why carriers prioritize calls over downloading movies on a teenager's cell phone is because if the teenagers didn't -- were allowed to do that, you and I simply could not make a call very easily.
ATKINSONI want to go back to this one point about -- Cecilia's point about small business being disadvantaged. We have a thing now on the internet we've had for 15 years called content delivery networks CDNs, YouTube, all sorts of video companies. They pay extra to get their content next to the last mile. Now, should we ban those? Isn't that unfair? Isn't that hurting a small company? They'd have to pay to get that? That's how the internet works. People pay to get to places.
SOHNWell, unfortunately a lot of the complaints that we get are about CDNs trying to get their traffic to the consumer but being throttled by the last mile ISP. So that's not a very compelling argument. We get a lot of informal comments from the public, get dozens a week. And many of them are about, I can't get my Netflix. It buffers forever. And that's because one of the big ISPs is basically clogging the nodes through which that traffic goes. So we have CDNs and some of the CDNs including Netflix are some of the ones that are calling for the greatest regulations. So I'm not sure that's a particularly compelling argument.
ATKINSONGigi, that's simply not true. The study that David Reed just did from MIT last week showed definitively that that Comcast-Netflix dispute was not about Comcast slowing the traffic. It was about Netflix choosing a transit path that was clogged up. Once they got off of that, everybody's speed went up. So that was not the Comcast or the ISPs doing this.
REHMRob Atkinson. He's president of The Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. And you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." We're going to open the phones now, 800-433-8850. First to Ben in Cleveland, Ohio. You're on the air, Ben.
BENHi, Diane. Thanks for taking my call.
BENI just wanted to make one really quick distinction in BitTorrent Technology, just for people listening. I know there is a CEO of a company called BitTorrent, but BitTorrent is a file type and it is kind of like a ubiquitous kind of thing. So I don't think it's really fair to pin it all down on a CEO of a company. Secondly, I'd like Rob to kind of address a pretty hypocritical view that I think is that a lot of big internet companies don't believe that people want faster internet and that there's no need for it. And hence, they don't need to really innovate for that but they like to push against us because they think that it's going to stifle innovation. So thank you.
REHMRob, do you want to comment?
ATKINSONSure. I do think that referring to a comment that the CEO of a company called BitTorrent who is involved with designing the protocol is a valid point. With regard to the speed, I just really don't think that's true. If you look at the latest report from Akamai, which is a company that does CDNs and measures internet speeds, internet speeds in the U.S. went up 35 percent last year. And they've been going up at a pretty regular pace like that for ten years in a row. Companies are getting faster speeds. There's a commitment to do that. There's no evidence that companies do not want faster speeds.
ATKINSONWhat is true is very, very few consumers will pay even 5 or $10 more a month for the next tier up. So there -- I can get 100 megabits to my house where I live in Washington, D.C. I don't get it because I don't want to pay the extra. Most consumers are like that. They just won't pay a few dollars more for high speeds.
AMMORIWell, we've seen that some companies such as Google, laying down fiber in Kansas City, decided to sort of upset the model that we've had. At the moment the cable companies and the phone companies aren't really upgrading their networks to super high speeds but Google has. And we've seen that lots of people have run to try to buy the gigabit service at Google.
AMMORIWe've also seen that that company, which is actually spending hundreds of millions deploying, has not said that they oppose net neutrality because it'll hurt their investment. So you're going to see a lot of investment. And what net neutrality really permits, I think, is all of us to be able to invest and use any application we want. It's the investment in the next Facebook and the next Google which matters just as much as the investment in the network.
REHMAll right. To Matthew in Dallas, Texas. Hi there.
MATTHEWHey, Diane. Thanks so much for having me.
MATTHEWSo I just wanted to say, like, very similar to health care we are getting less and paying a lot more than other countries when it comes to broadband. And I know at my mother's house, which is suburban, not at all rural, she has internet access that half the time doesn't work. And there's no option for her to go to another company for broadband. So I just wanted to say, we're not looking at a free market here where innovation is just happening at the, you know, speed of the market. We're looking at a broken monopoly market where if, you know, her company decides to speed up Netflix and therefore slow down other services, she has no choice.
KANGYou know, this is important context to sort of step back and remember. The typical person really only has two, or maybe even one provider, that they can choose from for broadband internet. And speaking to what Rob was saying earlier about how people don't want to upgrade, a lot of it's because it's expensive. When I talk to people -- I talk to a lot of readers, that means a lot for their monthly budget. And already communication costs are a big chunk of their monthly household budget, if you include wireless and their fixed wire, meaning their broadband home connection.
KANGSo the idea that people don't want to upgrade, I mean, I would love, if I could afford, to get the fastest no matter what. Nobody would say no to that if possible. That said, there are business considerations. And, you know, even today the fact -- after Obama spoke actually all the cable stocks went down on Wall Street. And even this morning the CEO of AT&T said, we may not consider expanding our fastest broadband to those areas.
KANGSo there is. And why is that? Why is that sort of the question, you know, whether this is a good business or not, the idea potentially to become a utility service where there could be regulation that could Hamper these business models from their perspective could potentially damage their revenue prospects going forward. So that's something to consider.
REHMCecilia Kang. She's a reporter for the Washington Post. Short break here and when we come back, more of your email, your phone calls. I look forward to speaking with you.
REHMAnd welcome back. Marvin, I know you wanted to make a comment about Cecilia's last points on the stock going down over issues related to the internet.
AMMORISure. So at the moment, the cable stocks, some of them are down, mainly Comcast and Time Warner Cable because they're looking for a merger and I think Wall Street doubts that it might happen, as much guaranteed. But the phone stocks are not down. Sprint is up. And so it's unclear if there's any impact on the stock market from this announcement.
AMMORIAnd when AT&T comes out with their threat that they're not gonna invest in fiber to the home to 100 cities, for the last two decades, AT&T has threatened to not invest in fiber to the home unless they were given regulatory relief. And what I know is Google's still building and every company that is investing says they're gonna continue investing.
REHMNow, this goes right along here with an email from Bill in Winston-Salem. He says, "if the big internet providers don't want government regulation, why do they go to court and state legislators to block municipalities from building community-owned internet backbones. Gigi.
SOHNWell, that's a great question and actually, it's one that we're looking at right now. Two cities, Chattanooga, Tennessee, and Wilson, North Carolina, have built community broadband systems that give gigabyte speeds and it's brought enumerable economic development to their areas, yet laws in their states do not allow them to expand beyond their footprints.
SOHNSo basically, the law says you cannot get any bigger and neighboring towns are begging these systems to expand, but the state legislatures, at the behest of cable and telephone companies, have gotten these laws passed in 19 state legislatures. So we have these petitions from Wilson and Chattanooga, and we are looking at the possibility -- we obviously have to check the facts, check the law -- of preempting those state laws.
REHMSo what's at stake here? Is it competition that they're trying to hold down?
SOHNYes. It is about the ability of localities to determine for themselves what kind of local broadband competition they want to have and that they should be stopped. And the chairman has said this, they should not be stopped by state laws. Look, my boss has talked a lot about competition and the broadband space and he is the first FCC chair to say that there is not enough competition for the kind of broadband access that people need today.
AMMORIYou mean, Rob or me?
REHMI'm sorry. Rob, forgive me.
ATKINSONDiane, how many gas pipes do you have to your home?
REHMI happen to live in a condo so I cannot tell you.
ATKINSONYou have one, in other words. The idea that we should support multiple wires going into every home is one of the most wasteful things we can imagine. The United States leads the world, with Canada and Korea, on what's called intermodal competition. Two wires, two pipes to every home. We lead the world with those two other countries. The idea that we would want government subsidized third providers, which all that does is that raises the price for the rest of us because it's wasteful overbuilding.
REHMBut how does that speak to caller's comment? Why do they go to court and state legislatures to block...
ATKINSONBecause in many of those cases, what the local governments have done is they've given their own company -- talk about a net un-neutrality -- their own municipal company unfair advantage. They don't pay taxes. They get free access to the poles. Many of these have failed, by the way. Burlington, Vermont, the city was on the hook for millions and millions of dollars.
ATKINSONProvo, Utah, millions and millions of dollars. So it's one thing for a city to say, look, there's no broadband here. We want to try it with the private sector and if they say, no, but in many of these cases, they're -- Chattanooga's a great example. The federal government used valuable stimulus money to give them extra money to go from 100 megabytes a second to a gig when we should've been using that money in rural areas that have nothing.
SOHNI really need to respond because far more municipal systems have succeeded than failed. You guys love to trot out the handful of failures. But here's the other thing and here's the myth about the leg up that community broadband has. Private entities, like AT&T, like Verizon, like Comcast use public rights of way. They dig up public streets. They use those poles. So the notion that it's a purely private enterprise and just out of magic the free market has created these great systems without the government's help is just untrue.
AMMORII'd like to chime in. I mean, he asked you about your gas line to your house. If I'm not wrong, that's regulated as a public utility. There's one and it's regulated. So what he's saying is, we should have a unregulated monopoly. That would be great because...
ATKINSONNo. That's called two, Marvin. Monopoly's one.
AMMORIWell, so the chairman of the FCC believes, I think, from his speeches and his data, that the table stakes are 25 megabytes per second and at those speeds, usually cable is the only game in town and they dominate the market share. People usually get broadband from their cable company. And so, even if it is only two, that's not really a robustly competitive market and to be arguing for an unfettered monopoly without local competition, I think, is asking a little much.
KANGAgain, sort of stepping back, there are some interesting atmospherics that are sort of clouding and informing a lot of this discussion. And one big thing that we haven't talked about is a merger that's on the table between Time Warner Cable and Comcast. And this is all amid the idea that consumers feel -- and, again, I hear from readers about this all the time, I wish I had more choice.
KANGAnd yes, Comcast and Time Warner Cable do not overlap in certain localities, but it would give one company a big portion of the broadband internet market, up to 40 percent in some estimates. And that is what -- that's one of the things that has fueled this public interest in a very wonky tech issue, net neutrality. It's what brought the comedian, John Oliver, to do a sketch on what is net neutrality and really criticizing the FCC.
KANGIt's become a public relations sort of nightmare for Obama in a way and I think this is one of the impetuses for why he spoke this week is, hey, Obama, we've supported you, meaning the populous who want sort of net neutrality as well as Silicon Valley, who, politically and financially are increasingly backing the Democratic Party.
KANGSo they've been saying, since 2008, this is the one thing we've asked for. Even John Oliver's talking about this. You've got 4 million comments and where are we today? President Obama, you have about a year and a half, two years left, what's next?
REHMAll right. Let's go to St. Louis, Missouri. Hi, Eric, you're on the air.
ERICThank you very much. Net neutrality is really critical. I'm a realtor involved in community and economic development here. This is critical for business, particularly small businesses, but all you have to do is read the book, "Captive Audience," by Susan Crawford. It tells the story of what's happened with the incumbents in this country. And the real question is whether innovation will come from the United States or other countries, from China, from Sweden, from Korea, that already have gigabyte service at prices that are very reasonable.
REHMAll right. Marvin.
AMMORIWell, I'd like to thank you because the National Association of Realtors have been strongly pro net neutrality. The small businesses across the country have been speaking up, people just like that. They're the ones who, today, the people who have businesses on the internet aren't just, you know, search engines and social networks. Every business is an internet business. People sell their homes online.
AMMORIYou know, realtors are an internet business today and so to hear from him was, I think, great and I'm honored that I was invited on this show when you couldn't Susan Crawford. I love that book as well.
REHMAll right. Rob, you're on the air. Go right ahead.
ATKINSONThere's a big mythology out there that the U.S. network is not very good. In fact, we are the most suburbanized, least populated country in the world, except for Australia. It's real easy to get fast broadband when you're in Korea because everybody lives in Seoul. You know what the difference between a page loading in Seoul and a page loading here according to Akamai?
ATKINSONYou're in Korea, you press the button, the page comes onto your screen. It's six-tenths of a second difference. So our speeds are very, very good. We have 50 percent more high speed broadband than Europe does.
REHMHere's an email from Gene who says, "didn't the government, through DARPA, create the internet to begin with? So why wouldn't the government have more power to enforce net neutrality?" Gigi.
SOHNWell, yes, I mean, I think it is a common myth that the private sector created the internet. The government did create the internet, although, you know, I don't want to, you know, put past people that, look, the private sector did build the internet we have today. And the cable companies and the telephone companies are, you know, doing their best to build up speeds.
SOHNIt's not where it should be. You know, my boss said that, you know, for the table stakes, 25 megabytes per second, 75 percent of the country does not have a choice.
REHMAll right. And here's an email to that effect from Ann. She's in Monrovia, Indiana. She says, "Yesterday, a school which was closed due to snow held classes online and announced it anticipates doing away with snow days. As it is now, many families cannot afford online access at home. How much worse will it be when those who can afford it are buying much faster service leaving the dregs for those of us who can't afford any better?" Marvin.
AMMORIThat is a real concern. I mean, if you look in the docket education companies filed, it's companies like Codecademy and General Assembly and even a great company called Code Combat that teaches kids how to program through video games, all of them said, you know, our companies would not exist -- we wouldn't be able to help children learn these new skills unless we had unfettered access to an open internet.
AMMORIIf we were forced to pay for a fast lane that only Microsoft and Google and Facebook could afford, then all these children would have to either pay more for schooling or these new innovative business models on education online will never happen.
KANGThis idea, this digital divide, is still an issue for sure and lower income people can't do a lot on the internet that you have to do today. File for -- actually apply for a job, which you have to do, oftentimes, online only, to look up your homework, that's a case. It's a tricky thing because oftentimes in areas where there is access and even when it's affordable -- and I will say Comcast has a low income broadband program, for example.
KANGThere have been efforts by the private sector to try to bring broadband to lower income people. It's hard to -- there's so many obstacles in terms of explaining the relevancy, the equipment that's needed and training, so it's a big problem still and I sympathize with what the caller's saying.
REHMAll right. To Alice in Ann Arbor, Michigan. Hi there, you're on the air.
ALICEHi, thank you. Quite a few years ago, I believe the phone companies or AT&T and some of the large -- were subsidized by the taxpayers to update their systems to fiber optics, which other countries have and for years, they did not do it. They took the money and did not do it and that's why a lot of the small communities are forming their own and they're suing them -- they're trying to sue them about this now.
ALICECan you comment on that?
AMMORISo Rob wants to jump in and then I can go.
REHMAll right. Go ahead, Rob.
ATKINSONNo, no, if it's Marvin -- go ahead. I wasn't sure if you were...
AMMORISure. So I haven't delved into these accusations, but there have been accusations that companies have taken lots of local subsidies and not built fiber. What I know at the federal level is that these companies promise all the time if you deregulate us, we will build fiber and they never have followed through on that. And so but for the last 100 years, there have been immense subsidies to the phone and cable companies.
AMMORIThis has not been a free market. Cable companies had monopolies in their town for 25 years often, franchises that were monopolies. AT&T was a monopoly for a long time.
REHMAnd you're listening to "The Diane Rehm Show." Rob.
ATKINSONThis is simply false, okay. There have not been subsidies to these companies. This is one of those urban myths that goes around that people like to popularize. There was no government deal to give AT&T money to build fiber. None. This other point about why -- and Marvin said companies will be forced to pay for fast lanes. Never, ever, ever will that happen. That is, again, an urban myth used to gin up fear.
ATKINSONNo one will ever be forced to pay to get on the internet. And the last point, the reason we have so few people using internet compared to other countries has nothing to do with our network. It has to do with we have over 30 percent of the population who doesn't own a computer, who doesn't have digital literacy. All the time and effort we're spending debating essentially this feel good, upscale thing called net neutrality, we should be spending our time getting computers and literacy to the people who really need it in this country.
REHMGigi, how soon do you think the FCC may come down on its decision on net neutrality?
SOHNWell, with all possible speed. I mean, we know how important this is. Look, we work in a bureaucracy, you know. We need to get the record right. What we don’t want to happen is we don't want to go back to court again and have the court tell us your record is not full enough. It is not sustainable enough for us to uphold...
REHMWith 4 million responses and the number of years that this has gone on.
SOHNYeah, but the decisions are complicated, okay? I mean, clearly...
SOHNBut when you're talking about finding the right legal basis for, you know, mobile net neutrality rules and what kind of forbearance there should be and what should our jurisdiction be with regard to privacy and consumer protection...
REHMBut give me a ballpark?
SOHNI would say in the next couple months, but, you know.
REHMIn the next couple of months. Before the end of the year?
SOHNI can't really say. It's unlikely that it'll be before the end of the year. It's more likely that it'll be at the beginning of next year.
KANGMay I ask Gigi a question?
KANGDid the president's comments this week, did it complicate your situation and does the chairman agree with what he said?
SOHNSo I think Cecilia's referring to what was on the front page of The Washington Post today where somebody alleged or The Post alleged that the chairman disagrees with the president and is gonna chart a different path. And they used some comments said by the chairman there. Those comments were completely taken out of context. The chairman and the FCC will look at the president's comments just like it will look at the other four million comments and it will come to a conclusion.
SOHNBut nobody should draw the conclusion that that chairman is either going to follow the president or diverge from the president. All options are on the table.
AMMORISo that Washington Post story, I was in that meeting. I heard Tom Wheeler...
SOHNAs was I.
AMMORIYeah. So I was in that meeting. I think Gigi's right. I think that story was a little inaccurate. It wasn't clear to me that Tom Wheeler was indicating in one way or the other if he would support the president. He was mainly talking about time and asking some hard questions and we were trying to give him some answers. What I do want to say is, you know, Rob mentioned earlier that net neutrality is an upscale issue.
AMMORIIf you look at the record, that's not at all what it is. You have Etsy sellers in there saying, you know, 88 percent of Etsy sellers are women and many of them make their living selling Etsy and it's a low margin business. It's a hard business. Most of them are middle income. And they rely on the internet to make a living.
REHMAll right. We'll have to leave it there. I want to thank you all for being here. Cecilia Kang, Marvin Ammori, Rob Atkinson and Gigi Sohn. We will wait the decision by the Federal Communications Commission on net neutrality. Thanks for listening all. I'm Diane Rehm.
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