FCC votes for a half-measure on net neutrality
This month's least-surprising tech-policy development played out in a protracted hearing at the Federal Communications Commission this morning. In a 3 to 2 vote, the FCC decided to write a weakened set of network-neutrality rules.
The proposal on the table was essentially the same as the limited set of net-neutrality regulations that FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski floated Dec. 1 -- and doesn't differ that much in its outlines from a joint Google-Verizon proposal that was widely denounced (including in my column) this summer.
Under the new scheme, the FCC will write regulations banning all Internet providers from blocking any legal Internet sites or services. (The Motion Picture Association of America noted with pleasure that this framework allows providers to "take reasonable measures to address copyright infringement.") The commission will also require them to document how they manage their networks, so customers, in theory, will know what kind of connection they're getting.
The FCC's rules would prohibit wire-line broadband Internet providers -- including cable modem services such as Comcast as well as fiber-optic and digital-subscriber-line connections such as those sold by Verizon -- from "unreasonable discrimination" against particular sites but would allow them to charge sites more for faster delivery. It would impose considerably looser rules on wireless broadband providers. AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, Verizon Wireless and their ilk could slow access to some sites and charge more for access to others as long as they didn't interfere with competing voice and video services, such as Skype or Apple's FaceTime.
(Note that wired and wireless providers alike generally testify that they have no plans to discriminate against anybody online; they merely want the legal flexibility to continue not doing such a thing.)
I still don't like this proposal's discriminatory regulatory treatment. People buy wireless broadband not just as a supplement to land-based services but sometimes as their only Internet connection. The FCC's own National Broadband Plan relies heavily on building out wireless coverage. So why cover two competing markets with different rules?
The other problem with the FCC's new framework is its shaky legal foundation. After giving up on a simpler but politically more challenging proposal to reclassify broadband services under the same chapter of federal telecommunications law that covers traditional voice calling services, Genaschowki opted to build this new structure on a different area of telecom law that suffered a court defeat in April -- setting off this entire round of net-neutrality discussions.
And yet despite this attempt to find a bipartisan solution, the FCC split on the same party lines that you would have seen with a vote for the earlier, so-called Title II solution. Its two Republican appointees, Meredith Attwell Baker and Robert M. McDowell, voted against today's proposal, and Democratic appointees Michael J. Copps and Mignon Clyburn joined Genachoswki in voting for it -- while sounding distinctly unenthused in their own remarks.
It matters that the FCC has voted to write specific rules prohibiting the very worst sort of net-neutrality violations. But between the inevitable court challenges and a long period of rule writing that lies ahead, we're a long way from any sort of certainty about what you will and won't get with your Internet connection, and what the feds can do about it if your provider's Internet access seems less than open.
What's your read on this new deal from the FCC? Have we accomplished anything after all this back-and-forth, or has the commission merely sentenced tech reporters to another year of covering this debate?
| December 21, 2010; 2:16 PM ET
Categories: Policy and politics, Telecom
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