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The FCC Sides With Net Neutrality; So Do I

You could say that today's column started when I saw those Sprint ads with the guy in the trench coat bragging that he had the Web right on his phone.

Those ads were ridiculous back in the day, but the 3G connections and thoroughly Web-enabled smartphones available now -- for instance, Apple's iPhone, Google Android phones like T-Mobile's MyTouch and Sprint's upcoming HTC Hero, and the Palm Pre -- ensure that the wireless Web is no longer a joke. For some people, it's just the Web, however big of a screen they see it through.

(Hook up a smartphone to a computer in a "tethering" setup, or plug in a USB mobile-broadband modem, and you can use as big of a screen as you want.)

And when you look where mobile-broadband technologies are heading -- standards such as WiMax and LTE will increase both download and upload speeds -- the wireless Web will only get more important.

That's why I cautiously approve of Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski's move, announced Monday, to craft regulations that would require both wired and wireless Internet providers to carry legal Internet traffic without discrimination.

That concept goes by the phrase "net neutrality," and it's been batted around for the past few years (back in 2006, I devoted parts of my May and June newsletters to critiquing some particularly laughable attacks on net neutrality). But where earlier discussions only led to more talk, this time around Genachowski apparently has the votes to get the FCC started on the rule-making process.

We'll have to pay close attention to just what regulations come out of the FCC, but I think that the right policies can steer wireless carriers' competition in a more customer- and innovation-friendly direction. When carriers can no longer manage their networks by banning certain kinds of uses in fine-print restrictions (ever notice how none of these companies wants to advertise their disapproval of the "wrong" Internet applications?), they'll have to focus their enforcement efforts on individual, bandwidth-hogging users (which would at least place blame appropriately).

I won't be surprised if some also impose stricter or more specific broadband usage caps -- but in that case, I'd expect competitors to respond by touting their more generous bandwidth allocations. Some companies might also react by asking the government to sell more wireless spectrum; I'm fine with that and wouldn't mind seeing expanded spectrum made a part of a net-neutrality deal.

But that's just my own prediction for how this could play out. What's yours? The comments await...

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 25, 2009; 11:44 AM ET
Categories:  Policy and politics , Telecom  
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"I'd expect competitors to respond by touting their more generous bandwidth allocations." I think you hit the nail on the head. When one airline raises rates, they all do; then one break ranks, lowers them, and the rest follow suit. (Though they haven't done it yet for those ridiculous bag fees.) I think bandwidth will be the same way.

-- Michael Seese, CISSP, CIPP
author of Scrappy Information Security

Posted by: MichaelSeese | September 26, 2009 12:17 PM | Report abuse

Rob, you may want to be careful about what you wish for. If carriers cannot "discriminate" between different kinds of traffic, they cannot prioritize time-sensitive protocols, and your experience -- whether it's on a wired or a wireless network -- will suffer. And if expensive bandwidth cannot be rationed, prices for all users will have to increase, which will make no one happy.

The FCC's original "four principles" were drafted by politicians who did not consult with engineers -- after all, they were just nonbinding "principles" and not rules. And so, serious problems which would arise, were they enforced as rules, were not caught. Yet, Chairman Genachowski, in his speech, reiterated the same words verbatim -- indicating that he may well opt for them to be adopted without changes.

This would be disastrous for Internet users. It would also harm small, rural, and independent ISPs, possibly putting all ISPs but the telephone and cable companies out of business. (Satellite ISPs would likely collapse immediately if they could not enforce "fair use" policies.) Do you want to have more choices, or fewer? Do you want to see more broadband deployment, or less? Do you want to see innovation, or stagnation because providers are locked into specific business models and technologies and cannot experiment with others? Please consider these things carefully before getting behind potentially devastating, onerous, and unnecessary regulation.

Brett Glass
Owner and Founder
LARIAT - The world's first Wireless ISP (WISP)

Posted by: squirma | September 28, 2009 10:42 PM | Report abuse

This regulation grab is just one more example of a seemingly innocent regulation to help the public good where as history has shown the government will regulate the internet to the point were we will all come out on the short end of the stick. It will be more restrictive, more costly, and less competitive. This needs to be rewritten to mitigate the loopholes or thrown out all together.

Posted by: swiftboy1 | September 29, 2009 10:22 AM | Report abuse

* Brett: Thanks for the thoughtful dissent. But the wired providers already say they don't discriminate based on protocol or service, so how would rules requiring that they not do so cause a problem? (I'm setting aside compliance costs in this case.) In the case of wireless, our experience already suffers--the providers assert the right to ban some traffic already, making entire categories of use difficult or impossible.

As for satellite providers, I don't see anything in FCC's net-neutrality suggestions that would bar a HughesNet or WildBlue from enforcing a fair access policy--the current HughesNet FAP doesn't ban specific sites, services or applications and speaks only to total bandwidth consumption.

* swiftboy1: Net neutrality is not about "regulating the Internet"--it's about ensuring that Internet providers themselves can't regulate the Internet by making some parts of it difficult or slow to access.

* Everybody: My story didn't note that the Washington Post Company owns a cable-TV provider, CableOne. I have no idea what its stance on net-neutrality might be. I didn't even think to mention it largely because it doesn't sell service anywhere near D.C. (closest it gets is Tennessee).

- RP

Posted by: robpegoraro | September 29, 2009 12:25 PM | Report abuse

Squirma, you can't simultaneously claim that no one discriminates and thus rules aren't needed, and that discrimination will ruin you. Those statements contradict each other.

Net neutrality does not prevent wise allocation of bandwidth, and it does not require increases in fees. You can charge for usage of bandwidth, and people will pay more if they want more. They will self-moderate their behavior.

Rationing it otherwise is ham handed. Charging more for all users to pay for additional users is ham handed.

Blocking or slowing down web sites, rather than charging for additional access, is ham handed.

Charging by usage makes the people who are willing to pay more for more access happy, and keeps rates stable for everyone else.

The four principles were in fact developed in consultation with IT experts, not politicians, and have been actively discussed - and widely supported - in the IT industry press.

The four principles have been enforced. Thus the Comcast broohaha. However, Comcast claimed they were not true rules, but they were obeying them anyway.

Net neutrality is what ISPs claim they are doing today. It does not hurt small, rural, or independent ISPs, because THEY CAN CHARGE MORE FOR ADDITIONAL USAGE. It will not put any ISP out of business. It will not hurt satellite ISPs BECAUSE THEY CAN CHARGE MORE FOR THE ADDITIONAL USAGE.

Net neutrality prevents ISPs from blocking web sites, blocking applications, and extorting money out of web sites. Those are not behaviors that give us more choices. Those are not behaviors that help broadband deployment.

Net neutrality is vital for innovation. It's what ISPs CLAIM THEY ARE DOING ALREADY, with the only exceptions being rare cases of abuse. So it's a bit rich to have them also claim that requiring what they do already will destroy the Internet.

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | September 30, 2009 7:10 AM | Report abuse

Swiftboy, net neutrality isn't a regulation grab. Basically, all net neutrality does is guarantee ISPs give you access to all legal web sites and legal web applications.

It prevents misbehavior on the part of ISPs, in blocking services they disagree with or that compete with products offered by the ISPs company.

For example, under net neutrality, your broadband provider cannot block or slow down online access to Netflix relative to other online video services. They can't make their online video service fast, and their competitors slow.

Net neutrality allows businesses on the Internet to compete fairly and increases competition and the free flow of information.

What most of us think of as the Internet - the web sites, the applications, all the destinations - benefit from this, and their companies are in favor of it.

We wouldn't tolerate the phone company telling us who we can call, and we can't tolerate ISPs telling us who we can browse.

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | September 30, 2009 7:19 AM | Report abuse

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