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Big Cable's big problem in the net neutrality debate: everyone hates them

Executives for two of the least popular companies in America: David Cohen of Comcast and Arthur Minson of Time Warner Cable.
Executives for two of the least popular companies in America: David Cohen of Comcast and Arthur Minson of Time Warner Cable.
Mark Wilson/Getty Images

On Wednesday, a number of websites "slowed down" in a symbolic protest of the Federal Communications Commission's proposed network neutrality rules, which many critics say won't do enough to protect network neutrality. The protest generated the largest volume of comments the FCC has ever received on one issue for a simple reason: people really hate their cable company.

A growing number of network neutrality supporters are pushing for something telecom insiders call "reclassification." That's a legal maneuver that would expand the FCC's authority to regulate broadband providers. In the past, opponents have successfully painted reclassification as the "nuclear option" of telecommunications law, arguing it would expose the internet to excessive regulation. But the FCC now faces more pressure than ever to push the red button.

The critics have some decent arguments. Reclassification would be a big change, and it could subject the internet to some intrusive and counterproductive regulations. Advocates say the FCC could use a legal technique called forbearance to avoid enforcing the most harmful regulations, but it's not clear how much forbearance the courts would allow. More fundamentally, it's not obvious how to translate the principle of network neutrality into a clear and enforceable regulatory language.

But those arguments haven't gained much traction with the public. Last week the Sunlight Foundation analyzed 800,000 comments submitted to the FCC and found that about two-thirds advocated reclassification. Less than five percent opposed regulation altogether. Yesterday the net neutrality docket broke the record for the number of comments to the FCC on one issue — the previous record-holder was a proceeding on Janet Jackson's nipple appearing on television during a Super Bowl halftime show in 2004.

People hate their cable company

Why has the debate proven so one-sided? I think the reason is simple: people hate their cable company. Internet service providers and cable television companies are the two least popular industries in the American economy, and the two biggest cable companies, Comcast and Time Warner, are the least popular companies in these industries.

This means that any time the nation's biggest cable companies get involved in a policy dispute, the public instinctively takes the other side. Most people don't have an informed opinion on the merits of reclassification or the feasibility of forbearance. But many strongly believe, from personal experience, that cable companies will do anything to make a buck.

Big cable companies seem to go out of their way to stoke this kind of hatred. They force customers to engage in aggressive, nerve-wracking bargaining to avoid having their cable and internet bills shoot up. They make it difficult to cancel service. They've allowed customers' streaming experience to degrade in order to squeeze more money out of content companies like Netflix. Comcast set an arbitrary bandwidth cap in 2008 and has barely changed it since then. Customers are forced to sign up for installation in four hour windows, then left to wonder if the technician will know how to do his job — or will show up at all.

Almost everyone knows someone who has been hurt by a cable company's greed or incompetence. When I asked my colleagues here at Vox, several related bad experiences they've had with a cable company. Comcast, Verizon, AT&T, and Time Warner Cable seem like companies determined to pad the bottom line by any means. Customers are tired of it.

When the network neutrality debate began a decade ago, broadband internet service was still a new concept. The argument that government should keep its hands off and let the market evolve had a lot of appeal. There were hopes that technological progress would cause new companies to enter the market and shake it up.

Almost a decade later, it's clear that there's not much new competition on the way. It's obvious the incumbents have no interest in providing better service. So whatever reservations they might have, more and more people think it's time for the feds to take stronger measures.

A different model

The sad thing about this is it didn't have to be this way. A century ago, another telecommunications monopoly faced a similar situation. The old AT&T was rapidly gobbling up competing telephone companies. The Wilson administration was considering launching an antitrust case against the company.

But AT&T president Theodore Vail decided it would make more sense to cooperate with the feds than to fight them. In 1913, AT&T sent a letter, known as the Kingsbury Commitment after the AT&T executive who drafted it, to the Wilson administration. In this letter, AT&T offered to make certain public-interest commitments if the government ended its antitrust investigation.

The resulting regime wasn't perfect by any means. But Vail's conception of AT&T as a different kind of company — one that had obligations to the public as well as its shareholders — helped to give America one of the best telephone systems in the world. And in the long run, this approach probably benefitted AT&T shareholders too: by improving the company's standing with the public, the strategy helped to ward off hostile government regulation.

In contrast, today's telecommunications companies seem determined to squeeze every ounce of profits out of their dominant positions. Consumers are tired of it, and they're increasingly pressuring their elected officials to do something about it.

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