After AT&T halted investment in its fiber optic network, saying the efforts would be unprofitable under net neutrality, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) gave the telecom giant one week to back up its claims with evidence. That week is now up, and the FCC and AT&T have edged even closer to a legal showdown over net neutrality.
In a press conference on Friday, FCC head Tom Wheeler implied that he was expecting AT&T to sue the government agency, telling reporters, “We are going to be sued. That’s the history. Every time in this whole discussion any time the commission has moved to do something, one of the big dogs has gone to sue… We don’t want to ignore history.”
Wheeler added that the FCC’s goals include making sure a court decision in 2015 guarantees “an open Internet, no blocking, no throttling, no fast lanes, [and] no discrimination.” A press release issued by the agency on Friday notably addressed the net neutrality issue without using the term “net neutrality” at all. Instead, the FCC’s statement emphasized the fact that the nation’s telecommunications infrastructure was in the middle of a transition to IP-based communications rather than the copper wires of the past; arguments such as the necessity for customers to be able to call 911 during a power outage were emphasized in the public statement.
For its part, AT&T is digging in its heels and essentially saying it will only resume investment in its fiber optic network under certain conditions. In a statement issued by chief privacy officer Bob Quinn, the company said that “Customers are demanding higher speeds and more capacity, and a vibrant, competitive environment exists to provide robust, innovative options. The success of what Chairman Wheeler describes as the Fourth Network Revolution can be achieved by adapting the FCC’s technology transition framework in recognition of these realities while preserving the ability for all industry participants to continue to invest in faster and better Internet for consumers.”
Translated out of public policy press release-ese, this means AT&T is unhappy with the FCC’s current course and is willing to play hardball in order to achieve its goals. President Obama’s moves on behalf of net neutrality, even if they benefit the American public and most entrepreneurs, caused an immense amount of anger inside the corporate offices of AT&T, Comcast, and other large telecommunications providers. Over the next few months, expect a lot of lobbying and politicking (along with the expected op-eds and ad campaigns on both sides) as the net neutrality fight shifts into overdrive—AT&T’s fiber optic investment is only a small part of it.