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.
(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?
September 21, 2009; 3:40 PM ET
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