There was an interesting quote making the rounds yesterday from AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson. You'll recall that in the heat of the network neutrality debate, the company suggested the regulations might stop its investment in FTTH buildouts and then backtracked quickly. Yesterday he went and blew on that ember.
"The exact comment I made was we're going to put a pause on our new broadband deployment plans until we see how these rules came out. We have seen how the rules came out. As we read those rules, we do believe they're subject to modification by the courts and remand by the courts to the FCC."
"Based on our reading of the Title II order that came out, we're operating and we're investing under the scenario that these rules will probably be changed."
So in other words, network neutrality as now implemented would be a barrier to investment if AT&T weren't confident that it will eventually win the war whose battles it just lost badly. Therefore, they will continue to do what they're doing now, which happens to make plenty of money of course.
It's sort of like going to your local diner and ordering an apple pie you say you don't like on the grounds that you are confident that if you keep eating it you can get the cook fired eventually and replaced with your grandmother. You get to take verbal potshots at the current chef, and you get to eat lots of apple pie while doing it.
The opponents of network neutrality have been marshaling their forces again while the supporters' after-party winds down. AT&T's new position is more nuanced than the old one, replacing threats with hypotheticals, making the case for regulatory hindrance without actually being hindered. Some are having a bit of fun with that (including me), but they need to be careful. It looks to me like the generals on the other side have come up with a plan to swing the pendulum in the public debate a bit, and this is just one piece of it.
AT&T and others have of course challenged the new Title-II-based regulatory regime in court, and that's where they are clearly placing their long term hopes. Because while Congress keeps getting mentioned as a possible cure we all know that has about as much chance of happening as the Knicks do of winning the Superbowl.
The court cases will take years, as they always do. Meanwhile, we're entering yet another presidential election cycle, so meaningful legislation would have already given way to posturing if there had been any such thing as meaningful legislating going on in the first place.
So since there is no change in the current system even remotely close at hand, we need to see Stephenson's comments and those of others in the light of a renewed and long term PR campaign. It's never over.
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