AT&T Changing Outlook on Net Neutrality?

AT&T Inc. (T) is hitting up the FCC with what it calls a compromise on net neutrality rules, although one group lambastes the move as nothing more than a “bait and switch.”

AT&T on Tuesday said the FCC should enforce broad rules prohibiting discrimination rather than create strict ones that require ISPs to carry all Internet applications and content. If the agency doesn’t follow that course, AT&T cautioned, providers won’t be willing to invest in their networks.

And, AT&T added, the FCC should not bar ISPs from forging commercial agreements in which they provide “value-added” services to Internet companies. In other words, AT&T should be able to charge or Google more money for faster connections and loading times.

Still, the company said in a letter, “preserving the open character of the Internet is critically important to ensuring that all consumers have the opportunity to be creators of content and innovators from their homes or their garages.”

Public interest group Free Press called AT&T’s missive a reiteration of the company’s same old opposition to net neutrality, despite the apparent attitude of compromise.

“What they are proposing would allow them to violate the core principle of net neutrality – letting them control the Internet by picking winners and losers in a pay-for-play scheme,” said Policy Director Ben Scott in a prepared statement. “That would destroy the free and open Internet.”

Scott then called AT&T’s stance a “bait and switch.”

“As bait, they ask to return to a standard of nondiscrimination that was long applied to the telephone network. But they fail to mention that this standard was part of a system of pro-competitive common carriage rules that they have railed against applying to broadband networks for years,” he said. “They haven’t changed their mind about common carriage. They are simply cherry-picking one piece of the old rules and calling it a compromise.”

But USTelecom, the large industry association of which AT&T is a member, disagreed.

“AT&T’s proposal is a thoughtful approach to balancing legitimate governmental interests in protecting consumer choice from anticompetitive harms while preserving the free and open nature of the Internet – freedom that has resulted in unprecedented innovation and investment,” said Walt McCormick, the organization’s president and CEO, in a press release.

The FCC in October opened a notice of proposed rulemaking on net neutrality; this week’s letter from AT&T came in response to that proceeding.

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