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FCC Chief Outlines Net-Neutrality Plans

Someday soon, it'll be safe to Skype and Sling on your mobile phone: The Federal Communications Commission will write rules requiring Internet providers -- both wired and wireless -- to treat Internet data and applications equally, Chairman Julius Genachowski said this morning.

In a speech at the Brookings Institution in the District, the chairman said the commission will set down regulations codifying four existing open-access principles as well as two new ones: "non-discrimation" and "transparency."

The fifth principle is one of non-discrimination -- stating that broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.


The sixth principle is a transparency principle -- stating that providers of broadband Internet access must be transparent about their network management practices.

Genachowski said three factors made a new set of rules necessary: the lack of competition among broadband providers (true); the fact that most broadband providers also sell voice and TV services that could be threatened by Internet-delivered services (indeed); and a rise in Web traffic that leaves some Internet providers feeling that they have to do something to keep their networks from being swamped (fair enough).

His proposed rules would apply the same principles to two different sets of problems.

In the market for land-based broadband, you rarely see explicit bans on particular sites or services. Instead, providers sometimes impose broadband caps that ban or tax usage above a certain threshold. Because those caps apply to every bit of data downloaded or uploaded, they would probably still work under the FCC's new rules.

But Internet providers have sometimes slowed down or suppressed certain kinds of traffic without telling users about it upfront -- as Comcast did two years ago when it held up BitTorrent file-sharing traffic without telling customers. Genachowski's proposed regulations would ban that sort of conduct.

This new net-neutrality deal could have more explosive effects on wireless broadband -- a market currently held down by a web of fine-print restrictions. For example, AT&T Wireless bans not just the usual hostile activity of spamming and denial-of-service attacks but "peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing," "redirecting television signals for viewing," and using a phone as a modem for a computer unless you've paid extra to do so.

The rules at Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless aren't quite as specific but still rule out many common desktop-computing activities.

(To be fair to the wireless carriers, those prohibitions are considerably less insane than the ones that many of them imposed less than three years ago.)

Even allowing for the exceptions Genachowski outlined in his speech -- allowing providers to "ensure that very heavy users do not crowd out everyone else" during rush hour and to continue blocking spam and other illegal activities -- many of those rules look to have a date with the Delete key.

For example, AT&T's ban on redirecting TV signals would almost certainly be tossed. How can this carrier justify banning EchoStar's Sling Media software when it sells its own TV-streaming service? Mobile-broadband providers would also probably have to tolerate Skype's Internet-calling service and its peer-to-peer background communication. Even restrictions on tethering a phone for use as a modem with a computer might have to go, as they seem to contradict Genachowski's data-is-data principles.

AT&T has already voiced its opposition to extending net-neutrality rules to wireless services, while Verizon is looking to see the details of any possible new regulations.

These proposed rules, however, would allow wireless providers to keep their 5 GB monthly usage caps -- the restriction most likely to stop you from using a wireless-broadband service for your primary Internet access. They would also not affect limits set by smartphone manufacturers. Apple could still reject certain applications from the iPhone's App Store -- which allows for the possibility of wireless carriers laundering their existing restrictions through a phone vendor's app-store rules.

But even with those caveats, Genachowski's proposal would upend much of the wireless Web as we know it. They'd represent a much bigger intrusion than the FCC's earlier steps to promote open access -- possibly one of the biggest changes to telecom regulation since the 1968 FCC "Carterfone" ruling that AT&T's customers could attach any non-harmful device to Ma Bell's phone network.

Without that ruling, we might have waited years longer to have answering machines, faxes and modems -- all technologies few people would have thought possible in 1968 -- in our homes. The potential rewards of enforceable net-neutrality principles are almost as unknowable today, while the costs of imposing yet another set of rules on private enterprise may be easier to imagine. But as long as many Americans can only choose from one or two broadband providers -- or a handful of wireless-data services that all happen to impose similar usage rules -- the risk of regulation seems worth taking.

What's your take on the FCC's proposal? Are you looking forward to using new software and services on your phone in a year from now, or are you worried about what the extra traffic might do for your own quality of service?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 21, 2009; 3:40 PM ET
Categories:  Telecom  
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Seriously these guys are going to find away around these new regulations.
The Government should have got into the broadband business that would have been the only way to get the telcos and others to respond with a good product.

Posted by: SOLVBACK | September 22, 2009 6:18 AM | Report abuse

I'm glad to see this in general. I think it will bring down costs for consumers in the long run and promote innovation. There is an argument to be made for companies to be able to control their network offerings, but communications have become the lifeblood of society so government does have an obligation to oversee. It's a fine line though between overseeing and overcontrol.

Posted by: treadlefish | September 22, 2009 7:30 AM | Report abuse

I'm worried about quality of service.

I'm mainly interested in using my cell phone as a voice communication device. I spend too much time on the internet anyway.

I have read and heard stories about how bad ATT service can be because I Phones use a so much bandwidth - the network gets really, really slow when it overloads.

I was with Cingular then ATT when it absorbed Cingular, but began having real problems receiving calls right about the time I Phones were introduced (I don't think it was due to the I Phone). I switched carriers and wonder how that network is for customers now.

It seems that all networks will need major upgrades to accommodate the myriad new hand-held devices.

Posted by: RAP1 | September 22, 2009 8:49 AM | Report abuse

The FCC is right. Think of it, in many ways the phone and cable companies want to control your freedom of speech and how you exercise it. They can block or slow down content they do not approve of if these regulations are not enacted. These companies are not to be trusted. Under Bush they aided the President (and probable war criminal) to violate the privacy rights of American citizens without a second thought (well most had no 2nd thought).

Posted by: rcc_2000 | September 22, 2009 9:06 AM | Report abuse

Why does the GOVERNMENT have to get involved if private consumers AGREE to the limitations the ISP companies impose? ANSWER: Because it's a Nanny-State GOVERNMENT, brought to you by Obama and Big Brother. Any questions? I didn't think there would be.

Posted by: DoTheRightThing | September 22, 2009 10:54 AM | Report abuse

Because it's effectively a monopoly as currently constituted. If your Hobson's choice includes a handful of carriers with similar restrictions, then it's the same as one carrier with those restrictions. Monopolistic behavior has often brought government interest.

I agree the carriers should be allowed to manage their networks with minimal interference from the gummint, but I should have the right to use what I PAY for with minimal interference from the CARRIERS.

Posted by: BoteMan | September 22, 2009 12:37 PM | Report abuse

Net neutrality is a false prophecy bandied about by dreamers who have no sense of reality. And that includes the short-sighted incompetents at the FCC.

You can't possibly expect YouTube/Hulu/Torrent traffic to be treated the same as normal surfing or e-mail. If ISP's continue to charge the same for all traffic, the weight of the heavier traffic will slow the net to a slow crawl.

The problem was bad enough when the issue was just torrents and other peer-to-peer sharing. It's much worse today with video on demand via Hulu, YouTube, Boxee, etc... Instead of a smaller number of file-sharers, ISP's now face bandwidth exhaustion caused by a much larger number of their users.

It's already slower and less responsive during peak hours (noontime ET or 7pm-11pm ET). The natural selfish nature of people is to exploit anything that resembles an "all-you-can-eat" buffet. From a Hulu user's perspective, that's exactly what flat-fee internet access is.

This is why usage-based fees will be a "feature" of every ISP. These fees will be the legacy of the FCC's net neutrality order.

Posted by: taskforceken | September 22, 2009 1:07 PM | Report abuse

Net neutrality is required for the free and fair development of information transfer in modern communications. Hulu is not any different from VOD, so I merely have to mock such complaints. The requirement of transparency will allow consumers to at least know what they are paying for, which is a small consolation to people with one or no options for high speed internet, however it is a start. If you don't have the government make some rules here, then the next thing you know, you won't be able to access any voice or video communication except whatever your provider allows. As most or all also provide TV service, there is no way they would allow access to sites that provide shows or video that they can charge you to record on DVRs, or provide "value added" to you with VOD. All competing technologies could and eventually would be degraded on their network, so that the services that the providers offer would be "better." Don't blame the slow network speed on other users, put the blame where it belongs, on the false promises that the providers advertise when they know they cannot deliver.

Posted by: Sm4rt3rTh4nY0u | September 22, 2009 2:44 PM | Report abuse

One thing everyone can agree on when it comes to the Internet is that we never know what twist lies just around the corner. At the turn of the century, who could predict that a video-hosting site would become one of the hottest properties on the web; yet by 2007, YouTube traffic surpassed that of the entire Internet in 2000.

Who knows what we will use the Internet for in another seven years? That’s why the bar needs to be set very high when it comes to additional government intervention in the day-to-day operations of the Internet.

Rob Pegoraro had to look back two years to find an example of an Internet provider suppressing traffic, and the consumer uproar quickly resolved that anomaly.

Given that consumers enjoy an open Internet today, we must be wary of the law of unintended consequences. Government regulation and technological innovation are a volatile combination and should not pre-empt consumer choices from driving the Internet’s evolution—wherever the future takes us.

Tom Amontree
SVP – Communications & Industry Affairs
USTelecom – The Broadband Association

Posted by: tamontree | September 22, 2009 6:03 PM | Report abuse

The only difference between a corporate monopoly and a government monopoly is authority.

Remember, GOVERNMENT ALLOWS THESE MONOPOLIES in the first place. How long do you think "Net Neutrality" will last now that you've handed the keys to the Internet to Washington?

About as long as this administration.

Sooner or later, big government shifts sides, Republicans come back, and then what will happen to Net Neutrality? How is the Democrats' track record on protecting fairness in the first place?

We would all be better off exercising the power of our consumer dollars in these situations. We live in an information-sharing age - for now, anyway - and are much better informed about the less savory activities of corporations. Whatever limitations there are in choosing providers right now, we have Washington to thank for. They control competition, and now they will decide what's "fair". This always leads to the same place - loss of freedom, loss of your political voice, loss of opportunity for the small competitor. Only the elite gets the ears of those idiots on the Hill.

Posted by: patrick4 | September 22, 2009 11:15 PM | Report abuse

Some comments here mentions the "rights" of consumers to expect certain levels of service from the carriers. I am all about making demands on service providers... by threatening cancellation. Taking these issues to D.C. and demanding "rights" to silly things like bandwidth is what will ultimately mute your political voice, and threaten your actual, real rights.

Claiming "rights" to anything that is a function of commerce is immoral, lazy, and wrong. You do not have a "right" to expect whatever service you think you deserve. All you deserve is what is in your contract. You chose to sign up - if you don't like the terms, don't get the service. Nobody is putting a gun to your head. If ISPs are breaking contractual agreements regarding bandwidth, then you have a leg to stand on. If we wanted bandwidth guarantees, we should demand those things in writing, and not cave like wimps to the idea that your life or career will suffer without broadband. Technology exists to be used, not to become a shackle of modern existence. We've chosen an attitude that suggests the latter.

"Rights" to world-class service... I'd laugh if it weren't such a prevalent attitude.

Posted by: patrick4 | September 22, 2009 11:27 PM | Report abuse

Compared to places like Japan, Korea, and Western Europe, the bandwidth that the telecom industry provides to US consumers is *pitiful*. We are very far behind the rest of the world in Internet access, and we don't realize it, because hey, "America is #1", right?

Hopefully, this FCC rule will prod our monopoly telecom providers to build some capacity and start catching up with the rest of the world.

And to those chanting "nanny state", realize that the FCC only has jurisdiction because the telecom providers are using PUBLIC resources (e.g. the airwaves, or government-granted cable/phone monopoly franchise). These are OUR resources that Verizon et al are using, and it is fitting that government regulate and place conditions on their use.

Posted by: DupontJay | September 23, 2009 9:51 AM | Report abuse

I would just like to have a wireless phone that provides the same quality of service as my wire line at home. All carriers seem to be plagued with dropped calls, rejected calls, blackout areas, etc.

Posted by: leberk | September 23, 2009 10:24 AM | Report abuse

I do not expect the result of "net neutrality" will be what most expect it to be. I do think telco/cable/ISP companies should not discriminate against any particular type of traffic unless harmful to the network (and "harmful" needs to be well defined). However, we should understand that the Googles of the world want this concept of net neutrality for the same reasons why the telcos/cable/ISP companies don't - being able to sell services or otherwise attracting traffic that will bring in advertisements. There's no moral motive here.

I believe the result of the FCC's proposed rules will be usage fees paid by us, the consumer. If a network provider can not "manage" their networks by outright limitations on traffic (or applications in the wireless world) then they will be forced to build more to keep network quality in tact, which means higher costs, which means a need for more revenue to keep the bottomline financials out of the dog house.

Personally I think not allowing network providers to choose what goes through and what doesn't is a good idea. However, it will be at a cost and frankly, that's reasonable.

Posted by: marylander2 | September 23, 2009 3:05 PM | Report abuse

MAD MIKE MAGEE Best of 50 in world, #35....
Michael Vaughn Roberts Magee or MAD Mike Magee has won Prize Near Nobel of Import, At Least Pulitzer. of 50 TOP Britians in Computing, MAD MIKE MAGEE Stampeeded in At Place 35.
Impressive, theINQ is mentioned in article Here:

35: Mike MageeFounder, The Register and The Inquirer
Magee co-founded The Register in 1994 and in doing so brought a sarcastic, tabloid-style of journalism to the IT sector. Arguably an influence on the snark-heavy tone of tech blogs, Magee has since gone on to launch The Inquirer, which he sold in 2006 to VNU, publisher of Computing and IT Week, but remained as editor. After leaving VNU in 2008, he set up a third IT news site TG Daily. Opps, Now Mike IS Mike. Actually theINQ Sold to SubUnit of NBC at that time Inverness, then Incisive, part of VNU

Signed:Thomas Stewart von Drashek M.D.

posted by : Thomas Stewart, 23 September 2009

Hey- Rob can Magic Jack Work on cable Internet?

Posted by: ThomasStewart1 | September 23, 2009 7:28 PM | Report abuse

Net should not be "neutral" at all. Users who need text eMail should get response despite hogs who want entertainment. Hogs who want prime-time entertainment should pay, big-time!

Posted by: AppDev | September 23, 2009 8:34 PM | Report abuse

Good comments thread here. Two follow-ups:

taskforceken: who's your Internet provider? Maybe it's their own network at fault, not the Net at large?

tamontree: Oddly enough, I think the sentence "Who knows what we will use the Internet for in another seven years?" is the single best argument for net neutrality rules. Ensuring that Internet providers can't limit the Internet to the uses that are popular today seems like a good way to preserve innovation to me.

- RP

Posted by: Rob Pegoraro | September 25, 2009 11:50 AM | Report abuse

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