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How Big Cable is organizing against net neutrality

David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of Comcast, and Robert D. Marcus, Chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable, testified to Congress about their proposed merger on May 8.
David L. Cohen, Executive Vice President of Comcast, and Robert D. Marcus, Chairman and CEO of Time Warner Cable, testified to Congress about their proposed merger on May 8.
Drew Angerer/Getty Images

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler is under intense pressure from both sides as he crafts a new set of network neutrality rules. Over the weekend, the Wall Street Journal reported that Wheeler was revising rules he released last month in response to lobbying from liberals who regarded them as too weak. Network neutrality proponents have been pressuring Wheeler to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, a legal category that would give the FCC broader authority to regulate internet access.

Now network neutrality skeptics are mobilizing to stop such a reclassification. The liberal advocacy group Free Press tells me that Rep. Gene Green (D-TX) is asking colleagues to sign onto a letter urging Wheeler not to reclassify broadband. "In the years that broadband service has been subjected to relatively little regulation, investment and deployment have flourished and broadband competition has increased," the letter argues.

The letter warns that reclassification could open the door to a "wide array of regulatory burdens and restrictions" that could halt progress toward improved broadband service. "I respectfully urge you to consider the effect that regressing to a Title II approach might have on private companies’ ability to attract capital," it concludes.

Free Press also says that Tom Downey, a former member of Congress and current cable lobbyist, is contacting members of Congress and urging them to sign on. Brian Dietz of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association declined to comment on that report, but he didn't deny that the group was "making our views known as widely as possible". In Dietz's view, reclassification would have "ruinous consequences, limiting the hopes of getting broadband to every American, slowing the growth of broadband speeds, and impeding efforts to improve adoption."

This is a tactic network neutrality opponents have used before. When Wheeler's predecessor, Julius Genachowski, considered reclassification in 2010, he got an earful from Congress. A letter signed by 74 House Democrats warned that reclassification would "jeopardize jobs," while 37 Republicans blasted what they saw as "heavy-handed 19th century regulations" of the internet.

That congressional pressure helped convince Genachowski not to reclassify. Instead, Genachowski tried to strike a compromise, trying to impose network neutrality regulations without first declaring broadband to be a telecommunications service. Unfortunately for Wheeler, the courts ruled Genachowski's gambit illegal earlier this year.

That means Wheeler faces a stark choice. He can stick to the weak network neutrality rules he first proposed last month. Or he can reclassify, permitting stronger network neutrality rules but potentially provoking a backlash from network neutrality opponents and their industry allies. And he has only three days to decide; he is scheduled to release his proposal to the public ahead of a Thursday FCC meeting.