AT&T says it supports net neutrality and won’t create internet ‘fast lanes’ — while pushing for the right to do just that

Pro-net neutrality internet activists at a rally in 2014.

Pro-net neutrality internet activists at a rally in 2014.
Reuters/Jonathan Alcorn

  • In response to a protest Tuesday in favor of net neutrality, AT&T said it was opposed to “fast lanes and slow lanes” on the internet.
  • In the same statement, though, the company essentially said it actually does want to offer a form of fast lanes for some applications.
  • Those applications would include connections for self-driving cars and public safety.

Net neutrality advocates may seem like they’re on the opposite side of the debate from AT&T and other big telecommunications firms – but that’s not how Ma Bell sees it.

Not only does AT&T oppose the blocking or throttling of access to websites or online content – just like net neutrality proponents – it is also, just like them, against the creation of internet fast lanes.

Well, with a few exceptions that is.

“Let me [be] clear about this – AT&T is not interested in creating fast lanes and slow lanes on anyone’s internet,” Bob Quinn, AT&T’s senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a blog post published on the company’s site on Tuesday.

But, he added, the company does want the freedom to essentially do just that – give preferential treatment, or a speedier virtual lane, to certain classes of applications. Among the data AT&T would like to prioritize: that coming from self-driving cars, remote surgery applications, and virtual reality devices.

“I think we can all agree that the packets directing autonomous cars, robotic surgeries, or public safety communications must not drop. Ever,” Quinn said in his post. “So, let’s address concerns around paid prioritization without impacting those innovations.”

Quinn’s statement came amid an on- and offline protest by consumer advocates on Tuesday aimed at urging Congress to reinstate the Federal Communications Commission’s net neutrality rules. The commission in December voted to rescind the Obama-era regulations that require internet service providers such as AT&T to essentially treat all data equally.

AT&T and other big telecommunications companies opposed the former net-neutrality rules and have argued against having them put back in place, charging that the rules were too onerous and thwarted their ability to innovate.

The question of paid prioritization – the creation of fast lanes – has never really been about whether internet providers could offer services that gave special treatment to data from applications such as self-driving cars. Even the Obama-era rules allowed internet providers to essentially prioritize certain data by creating so-called managed services. Although those services are carried over the same wire lines and wireless frequencies as internet traffic, their data is kept apart from the internet.

In his blog post, Quinn acknowledged that AT&T and other internet providers could offer such services, but charged that they were forced to seek permission from the government first under the old rules.

The conversation concerning paid prioritization needs to be about banning “fast lanes and slow lanes, while also ensuring that innovative, new real-time technologies like those described above continue to live in a world where permission-less innovation exists,” Quinn said in his post.

But AT&T and other companies have been offering managed services over their broadband networks for years. It’s not clear whether they’ve ever sought permission for them from the FCC.

For net neutrality advocates, the fight over internet fast lanes hasn’t been about the ISPs’ ability to ensure remote surgeries go smoothly, but about the concern that companies such as AT&T would use such practices to favor their own sites and services – and those of paid partners – over their competitors. Such companies have already been engaging in a related practice – dubbed zero rating – through which they offer discounted or free access to their own and partners’ sites and services.

The FCC under the Obama administration began an investigation into whether the ISPs’ zero rating practices were unfairly giving a leg up to their own related businesses, but Ajit Pai quashed that investigation soon after he took over as chairman of the FCC under President Trump.

Quinn’s statement is only the latest example of AT&T or other ISPs trying to convince the public of their support for net neutrality. Activists have cautioned that such statements have been symbolic at best.