Telecoms companies don’t manage information, they just transmit data

by Steve Blum • , ,

Honest, dude. You’re a dumb pipe.

There’s one big question at the center of the wrangling over whether Internet access can be regulated under common carrier rules: is it a telecommunications service or an information service? Federal law says telecommunications is a common carrier service and information is not.

When telecom laws were last overhauled 20 years ago, Internet access looked a lot like an information service. Nearly everyone dialled up an online service – America Online or Earthlink, for example – that, at a minimum, handled your email and provided a portal to proprietary data, public but non-Internet protocol content such as Usenet groups, and FTP and other servers, as well as the world wide web. To one extent or another, most ISPs played a gatekeeper role between users and the online world.

A lot has changed in 20 years. Now, when you buy Internet access from a landline, mobile phone or cable company, you might never see or use any service from them other than the simple connection between your device and third party platforms: email, social networks, websites, VoIP, video and the list goes on.

Cable and phone companies might offer email, for example, and bundle it with the access service you buy, but technically and practically it is completely separate. You can use AT&T’s broadband service to access Gmail, for example, or a completely random WiFi connection to get to AT&T’s email server. While there will always be grey areas, on the whole the lines between information and simple telecoms services are very clear these days.

The companies and lobbying groups that are asking a federal appeals court to reconsider its decision to uphold the Federal Communications Commission’s new common carrier rules for broadband filed stacks of paperwork last Friday claiming, in effect, nothing has changed. They say Internet access is still a value-added information service and not a simple, dumb telecoms pipe.

They are both wrong and wrongheaded. When you subscribe to broadband service from a cable or telephone company, you’re buying a purely technical connection between your device and the public switched network called the Internet. A telecommunications service, in other words. They have no right to act as a gatekeeper or to do anything other than connect you to the information you want, without looking over your shoulder or substituting their own content instead.

Here are the six petitions asking the entire D.C. appeals court to rehear challenges to FCC’s broadband common carrier/title II decision:

Alamo Broadband
AT&T
CTIA – mobile industry association
NCTA – cable industry association
USTA – landline industry association
TechFreedom