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The Senate voted earlier this week to overturn the Federal Communications Commission’s decision to roll back net neutrality rules. But in order for the FCC’s decision to be reversed, a similar vote would have to pass the house and be signed by the president. But the vote did accomplish one big thing: It reminded politicians that consumers care about net neutrality and support some kind of regulation on big telecom companies. Marketplace Tech host Molly Wood spoke with Brian Fung of the Washington Post about what he learned from senators after the vote. The following is an edited transcript of their conversation.
Molly Wood: After the vote, Republican Sen. John N. Kennedy of Louisiana told the Washington Post that his vote came down to whether you trust your cable company. He said, “If you trust you’re cable company, you’re not going to like my vote today. If you don’t trust your cable company, you will.” Setting aside the complexities of this issue, is that something that resonates with people?
Brian Fung: Well, after I tweeted that quote, I got a lot of feedback from people on social media asking the rhetorical question: Is there anyone out there who actually trusts their cable company? And I think that just really speaks to the amount of skepticism that average consumers have for claims that ISPs make.
Wood: So then let’s talk about a congressional solution to the issue of net neutrality. What do you think are the prospects for that, and what might that look like?
Fung: This has been bandied about for years. Really, whether or not it moves forward depends on who has the leverage in Washington. After the 2015 rules were put into place, Democrats didn’t need to come to the bargaining table in Congress because they held all the cards. That made it very difficult for Republicans to propose any legislative alternatives because Democrats had no incentive to compromise. Now the rules have been voted to be overturned, but you have the [Congressional Review Act], you have court challenges to the FCC trying to get this repeal vote overturned, and so Democrats feel like they have a lot of options that are, in some ways, pretty viable to restoring the 2015 rules.
Wood: Well, and then a huge part of this conversation is about competition. I think most consumers, pretty rightly, feel that there is not enough competition to force broadband providers into what would be, I guess, effective or consumer-friendly self-regulation. Some people think 5G could be part of the solution to that. Does that feel likely to you?
Fung: I think that’s plausible. It’s essentially the next-generation mobile data standard after 4G or LTE. And what’s exciting about 5G is not just the kind of speeds you can get, but also the reliability of the connection. And so, when you’re connected to something over 5G you’re not likely to lose or drop any packets of information, which makes it a really great technology for things like self-driving cars, potentially telemedicine or remote surgery. And the thought here is that the wireless carriers who provide this connection technology will actually be competitive with the people who provide those wires into your home — the cable company, the telecom company.
Wood: All right. So maybe it will be like coal, where people say, “Regulation didn’t kill coal, the market did.”
Fung: Yeah, I think one of the interesting things about how this has played out is you see traditional TV providers shifting business models, right? So, AT&T is trying to buy Time Warner so that it can build a targeted advertising business just like Google or Facebook. The company is moving into a whole different line of business and is adapting away from the competitive threats that it faces in its traditional businesses where it’s always enjoyed a lot of dominance.
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