On April 6th, a federal appeals court ruled that the F.C.C. did not have the authority to regulate how Internet service providers manage their network. At issue was Comcast's right to slow customer's access to the bandwidth intensive, file-sharing service BitTorrent. While they can now limit traffic that is overloading the network, Comcast was careful to say that it had changed its management policies and had no intention of doing so.
These comments were most likely to ease the minds of those who recognize the affect that this court ruling has on the F.C.C.'s authority to mandate "net neutrality." Advocates of net neutrality worry that this decision is going to give providers free reign to control what a user can and cannot access on the network.
It is this point that many of the media outlets focused on, turning this case into a potential watershed moment for watchdogs looking for unfair and biased treatment of traffic by Internet service providers. A single instance of seemingly preferential treatment of one type of content over another could end up causing a provider to lose the trust of their customers. It could also be reason enough for Congress to step in and explicitly grant the F.C.C. the authority to regulate.
As such, it is more important than ever for Internet service providers to be transparent in their actions to sustain customer loyalty. They need to make sure customers know how they plan to manage their networks and what to expect in order to build trust and a lasting relationship. Given that the national focus is on increasing Americans' access to high-speed Internet networks, anything seen to be contrary to achieving that goal, regardless of whether it is real or simply perceived, will have very negative connotations on the brand of that provider.
This is probably why Comcast's statement around the verdict was subdued and focused on the future: "Comcast remains committed to the F.C.C.'s existing open Internet principles, and we will continue to work constructively with this F.C.C. as it determines how best to increase broadband adoption and preserve an open and vibrant Internet."
Providers who want to allay customer fear and skepticism around their motives should make an extra effort to reaffirm their commitment to providing high-speed access and high-quality services. They should start to have an authentic, ongoing dialogue (that is threaded through everything from their Web and social media communications to policies and procedures) that explains the challenges associated with supporting all the different demands of high-bandwidth applications and exactly what they are doing or are going to do to meet these challenges. Only if customers trust that they are providing an equal opportunity service will providers be able to sustain their business without a lot of regulation.