On Feb. 26, the five commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted along party lines -- 3 (Democrats) -- 2 (Republicans) -- to enable net neutrality.

While this debate started many years ago and is far from over, especially with Senate testimony from the five FCC commissioners expected on March 18, it's worthwhile to look at the history of the Internet to better understand how we’ve landed here and what this might mean going forward.

In general terms, net neutrality refers to the principle that Internet Service Providers (ISPs) should enable access to all content and applications regardless of the source and without favoring or blocking particular products or websites.

These 3 Bright Line Rules support an open Internet:

  • No Blocking: broadband providers may not block access to legal content, applications, services or non-harmful devices.
  • No Throttling: broadband providers may not impair or degrade lawful Internet traffic on the basis of content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices.
  • No Paid Prioritization: broadband providers may not favor some lawful Internet traffic over other lawful traffic in exchange for consideration of any kind -- in other words “no fast lanes”. This rule also bans ISPs from prioritizing content and services of their affiliates.

A Brief History Lesson

The basic concepts for the Internet emerged in the 1960s with the development of packet switching network concepts and prototypes by researchers in the UK and US. Advanced Research Projects Agency Network (ARPANET) was conceived by ARPA, a government agency inside the US Department of Defense, to validate the concept of packet switching so computers at several academic and research institutions, initially Stanford, UCLA, UCSB and University of Utah, could communicate with each other.

The point? The government conceived of and was the primary maintainer of the Internet until 1992, when it passed the Scientific and Advanced Technology Act. This enabled commercial traffic on the Internet. Government has had a tremendous influence over the emergence of this technology and while its grip has loosened over the last 20 plus years, the government's involvement helped shape the Internet. 

It should therefore come as no surprise that the FCC was given more of a role overseeing the Internet as a result of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. Its predecessor, the Communications Act of 1934, led to the creation of the FCC and laid the foundation for its oversight of the telecommunications industry.

In 2005, the FCC further established its oversight by releasing its “Internet policy statement.” Given an over 80 year history of involvement in the US telecommunications infrastructure, the FCC and government have had significant influence on shaping policy for the telecommunications industry which since the mid 90s has included the Internet. That being said, the FCC’s oversight of the Internet has been relatively hands off, until recently.

Then Senator Barack Obama came out in favor of net neutrality in 2007. He said if elected President, he would protect a free and open Internet. He’s acted as a strong advocate of net neutrality since, reiterating once again the need for net neutrality last November.

Fast forward to May, 2014. The FCC opened a four month public comment period on Internet regulatory structure and net neutrality. It received close to 4 million responses from Americans -- the most comments it has ever received for an issue opened up for public comment.

And with three of the five FCC commissioners being Democrats, it was not a surprise when the commissioners voted along party lines to approve net neutrality. 

Where Do We Go From Here?

We arrived here in part because Verizon overplayed its hand with its Jan. 2014 legal victory. Verizon had sued to block the FCC’s 2010 lighter version of net neutrality which led the FCC to reclassify broadband as a common carriage service. No doubt there will be challenges from AT&T, Comcast, Verizon and several others to overturn this decision.

On the one side we have the FCC starting to flex its regulatory muscle and on the other, the private sector responsible for building out and managing the network claiming they need more flexibility in how they charge for their services to support their future investment. 

This is shaping up to be a classic confrontation between the private sector trying to maximize its self-interest vs. the government trying to ensure any gaps between the haves and the have-nots are minimized. And with both sides bringing their formidable resources to bear, one could say this debate is right where it's supposed to be.

Each side has valid concerns. As each escalates its efforts, the other feels the need to do the same. This will play out over the next several years and regardless of your position, this is more an early volley rather than a final decision.

The commissioners’ testimony to the Senate on March 18 should be interesting. And with the three Democrat FCC commissioners facing term expirations in 2015, 2017 and 2018 along with President Obama leaving office in 2016, we could see a reshaping of the FCC right when the net neutrality debate picks up steam.