Thousands Beg FCC for Net Neutrality Crackdown

Consumers vent to regulators about slow Internet, high prices, and data caps.

Activists protest outside Federal Communications Commission (FCC) as the commission is about to meet to receive public comment on proposed open Internet notice of proposed rulemaking and spectrum auctions May 15, 2014 at the FCC headquarters in Washington, DC. The FCC has voted in favor of a proposal to reform net neutrality and could allow Internet service providers to charge for faster and higher-quality service.
National Journal
July 30, 2015, 1 a.m.

In just the first month that net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions have been in ef­fect, con­sumers have filed about 2,000 com­plaints to the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion against Com­cast, AT&T, and oth­er In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders, ac­cord­ing to re­cords ob­tained by Na­tion­al Journ­al.

And the depth of con­sumer out­rage over un­re­li­able In­ter­net ser­vice and high prices is un­deni­able. One con­sumer, for ex­ample, com­plained about hav­ing to use the Wi-Fi at a Mc­Don­ald’s to take an on­line ex­am be­cause the In­ter­net ser­vice at home was so bad. “The Com­cast mo­dem is such crap that we can’t even ac­cess the In­ter­net,” the con­sumer wrote. “I’m liv­id.”

Many con­sumers com­plained about data caps — lim­its that pro­viders place on cus­tom­ers’ monthly In­ter­net us­age. When cus­tom­ers use more than an al­lot­ted amount of data in a month, some In­ter­net pro­viders throttle their In­ter­net speeds, while oth­ers im­pose ex­tra fees. “Our data should not be capped at 350 mbps!!!!” one con­sumer pleaded. “Please, please make data caps il­leg­al!!”

An­oth­er con­sumer stopped watch­ing Net­flix and Hulu be­cause of the “ri­dicu­lous” data caps. “I have to tell my kids to stop us­ing You­Tube and oth­er ser­vices and stuff they need for school so we don’t go over the cap,” the con­sumer wrote, ex­plain­ing that their In­ter­net-en­abled home se­cur­ity cam­era uses up a sig­ni­fic­ant amount of their monthly data. “By Com­cast hav­ing this data cap, I don’t have a open In­ter­net “¦ I also think this data cap is very in­ac­cur­ate, it goes up without any­body be­ing home, and some­times by a lot.”

The FCC es­tim­ated the total num­ber of in­form­al com­plaints filed in the first month of the new reg­u­la­tions and provided cop­ies of 50 of those com­plaints to Na­tion­al Journ­al as an ini­tial re­sponse to a re­quest sub­mit­ted un­der the Free­dom of In­form­a­tion Act. Pub­lic com­ments on pro­ceed­ings and form­al com­plaints are avail­able on the FCC’s web­site, but the agency does not routinely make in­form­al con­sumer com­plaints avail­able.

The net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions, which were en­acted in Feb­ru­ary and took ef­fect June 12, are in­ten­ded to en­sure that In­ter­net users are free to ac­cess whatever on­line con­tent they choose. The rules bar In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders from block­ing web­sites, se­lect­ively slow­ing down traffic, cre­at­ing spe­cial “fast lanes” for sites that pay, or “un­reas­on­ably in­ter­fer­ing” with the abil­ity of con­sumers to ac­cess Web con­tent. The rules also re­quire In­ter­net pro­viders to pub­licly dis­close in­form­a­tion about how they man­age their net­works.

The rules don’t ne­ces­sar­ily ban data caps, al­though the agency has said it will handle com­plaints on a case-by-case basis to de­term­ine if a par­tic­u­lar data-cap policy “un­reas­on­ably in­ter­feres” with a con­sumer’s In­ter­net ac­cess. False ad­vert­ise­ments about data caps or In­ter­net speeds also could vi­ol­ate the FCC’s trans­par­ency re­quire­ment that pro­viders ad­equately dis­close their prac­tices.

Sev­er­al of the com­plaints were about AT&T’s prac­tice of throt­tling the speeds of its heav­iest users on un­lim­ited mo­bile-data plans. The FCC already has is­sued a $100 mil­lion fine over the prac­tice, say­ing AT&T misled con­sumers by call­ing the plan “un­lim­ited” (AT&T is protest­ing the fine).

Con­sumers lodged the com­plaints us­ing the FCC’s on­line help cen­ter, and then se­lect­ing “Open In­ter­net/ Net Neut­ral­ity” on a menu. Ac­cord­ing to FCC spokes­wo­man Kim Hart, the com­plaints are first re­viewed by of­fi­cials in the FCC’s Con­sumer and Gov­ern­ment­al Af­fairs Bur­eau, who then for­ward the com­plaints to the pro­viders in ques­tion. The com­pan­ies must re­spond to both the FCC and the com­plain­ing con­sumer with­in 30 days (one pro­fan­ity-laced com­plaint provided to Na­tion­al Journ­al, however, was im­me­di­ately dis­missed as “in­co­her­ent/un­answer­able”).

Of­fi­cials in the FCC’s En­force­ment Bur­eau can choose wheth­er to in­vest­ig­ate any of the com­plaints for fur­ther ac­tion or pen­al­ties, Hart said. Parul De­sai, the FCC’s new “Open In­ter­net om­bud­sper­son,” works with the En­force­ment Bur­eau to identi­fy trends in the com­plaints and help de­cide which ones to in­vest­ig­ate, ac­cord­ing to Hart.

The Na­tion­al Cable and Tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions As­so­ci­ation and the U.S. Tele­com As­so­ci­ation, which both rep­res­ent ma­jor In­ter­net pro­viders and have sued to over­turn the reg­u­la­tions, de­clined to com­ment on the com­plaints.

Har­old Feld, the seni­or vice pres­id­ent of Pub­lic Know­ledge, a con­sumer-ad­vocacy group, ac­know­ledged that most of the com­plaints prob­ably do not identi­fy real vi­ol­a­tions of the FCC’s net-neut­ral­ity rules. But, he said, they show that reg­u­lat­ors need to stay vi­gil­ant and go after cable and tele­com com­pan­ies that take ad­vant­age of con­sumers.

“People are angry and frus­trated, and they are there­fore tak­ing this op­por­tun­ity to com­plain,” Feld said. “I would hope this would be a wakeup call, par­tic­u­larly for those people who con­tin­ue to labor un­der the de­lu­sion that every­body must be happy with their broad­band.”

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