FCC Approves Net Neutrality Rule Making

The move opens up a vehicle for comments, but how and to what degree the Internet should be free or regulated remains to be decided.
The Federal Communication Commission's five commissioners all agreed they favor an “open” Internet in supporting a net neutrality rule-making process Thursday, but hints emerged immediately that they will soon be agreeing to disagree on how and to what degree the Internet should be free and open or regulated.

While the five commissioners all voted in favor of the rule-making process with the three Democrats led by Chairman Julius Genachowski taking a more open approach to the Internet, the two Republican commissioners also supported the rule process, but questioned some “facts”. The rule-making process opens up a vehicle for comments on net neutrality that will close on January 14. Reply comments will be accepted until March 14.

“The Internet is and has been an open platform and it is that openness -- and the extraordinary benefits it has brought for our country -- that we seek to preserve through the proceeding we launch today,” said Genachowski. In a sign that the next stage of the net neutrality saga is likely to be a complex and lengthy affair, he noted that the FCC in 10 different proceedings on safeguarding the Internet has accumulated 100,000 pages of comments.

While all sides in the issue have issued statements supporting the future of the Internet that seem to equate their claims with declarations of support for Motherhood and apple pie, the reality is that there is a great deal of polarization already underway between some companies including carriers and ISPs on one side, and public interest groups and some companies such as Facebook and Google on the other side. Google and Verizon, however, happened to find some rare common ground on a few core net neutrality principles Thursday.

“Today we do disagree on substance,” said commissioner Robert McDowell, the ranking Republican on the commission. “I do not share the majority’s view that the Internet is showing breaks and cracks, nor do I believe that the government is the best tool to fix it. I also disagree with the premise that the Commission has the legal authority to regulate Internet network management as proposed.”

McDowell said the Internet may be the “greatest deregulatory success story of all time.” Public interest groups, and content providers such as Google, Facebook, and Twitter want as few restrictions on the Internet as possible. Carriers AT&T, Verizon Communications, Comcast, and others worry that they could be thwarted from delivering robust connections by new services and applications such as video that could hog their networks.

Wireless A Special Case

Special attention is likely to be directed at wireless broadband, and therein lies a special dilemma for the FCC. Genachowski indicated the status of wireless broadband should receive attention in the rules-making procedure.

“It doesn’t make sense to have one Internet when your laptop is plugged into a wall and another when accessing the Internet through a wireless modem,” he said Thursday. “At the same time, wireless networks are different from wired networks… This is an important issue on which the Notice seeks to develop a full and informed record.” Genachowski has also bemoaned the coming crunch on spectrum, which is running out.

Rules and regulations for wireless, a relatively new technology, haven’t been as formed and set in concrete as wireline regulations. The CTIA wireless trade association has argued that wireless carriers have successfully been innovating without government interference. In a statement issued Thursday, the CTIA said: “Rules that could impact the ecosystem from continuing to evolve, such as the ability of wireless carriers, device makers, and applications developers to optimize their devices, applications, and networks to work together, will stifle innovation and harm consumers.”

A net neutrality back story of sorts is developing in Congress. Congressman Rick Boucher (D-VA) said this week that he is supporting the FCC’s open Internet stance while Senator John McCain (R-AZ) said he is introducing legislation aimed at stopping the FCC from passing rules to regulate the Internet.

InformationWeek Analytics has published a report on setting up a requirements process that serves everyone. Download the report here (registration required).

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