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My Interview With FCC Chairman: No Retreat On Net Neutrality

If they weren't paying much attention before, the telecom, cable and wireless industries are in rapt attention to Washington now as the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission pushes for rules that could set the course of development of the Web.


Chairman Julius Genachowski. (Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, three months into the job, has introduced so-called net neutrality rules, that would codify and broaden policies that prohibit Internet service providers like AT&T, Verizon, Comcast and Time Warner from acting as gatekeepers of content on the Web. If you want to download legal content or an application onto your cell phone or from your home computer, the rules Genachowski has proposed would make sure no one stands in your way, the chairman explained.

The industry doesn't want more rules, but has responded by trying to crack open their networks a little more. But the chairman isn't retreating.

Here are some of the key questions and answers from my interview:

How does the move by AT&T to allow VoIP iPhone applications on their wireless network move the needle on net neutrality? If the industry is moving in the direction you are proposing, why continue with rules?

I applaud wireless companies' efforts to provide consumers with innovative, third-party services and applications, which is one reason I was encouraged by AT&T’s expression of willingness in its letter to the FCC to reconsider this issue. Yet we must recognize that this is a voluntary commitment by a single company. The rules I have proposed will preserve and protect openness for all lawful content, applications, and services on the Internet, and for all American consumers. The purpose is to ensure that the Internet remains our indispensable platform for innovation, opportunity, and prosperity.

How will the FCC deal with questions of network management that are unique to the wireless industry?

As Americans increasingly shift from wired to wireless broadband, it will be essential to ensure that the Internet remains free and open. A consumer accessing the Internet through a laptop with a wireless data card will have the same expectations regarding their Internet use as a consumer accessing the Internet utilizing the same laptop through a DSL or cable modem connection. However, managing a wireless network isn't the same as managing a fiber network, and what constitutes reasonable network management will appropriately reflect any operational differences.

Above all, transparency will be important for any practices that providers implement.

One argument against rules is that they would hamper investment in broadband. Do you agree with this idea?

A free and open Internet will promote investment and innovation. This has long been the case. There are hundreds of thousands of Americans whose small businesses rely upon the free and open Internet. Small businesses are where that majority of new jobs are created. Amazon, Ebay, Yahoo!, Google, YouTube, and countless others began as start-ups that took advantage of the Internet, with its low barrier to market entry, and used it as a platform for opportunity and innovation. The rules I am proposing seek to preserve the Internet as unparalleled engine for economic growth and prosperity.

How do you believe the wireless industry will contribute to the economy going forward?

The FCC sees mobile as an indispensable ingredient to our national broadband strategy. No sector of the communications industry holds greater potential to enhance America’s economic competitiveness, spur job creation, and improve the quality of our lives.

The Commission will pursue a Mobile Broadband Agenda that promotes a world-leading wireless sector in the United States. Our goal is to ensure that the mobile industry continues its progress toward global leadership, driving economic growth, and unleashing the next generation of innovation.

When you said the nitty gritty of net neutrality rules will be handled on a case by case basis, will your vision of the rules be clear enough for the wireless, telecom and cable industries? Please give a sense of your approach to these rules -- as a high level guide.

The goal of the open Internet proceeding will be to develop sensible rules of the road. Rules clear enough to provide predictability and certainty, and flexible enough to anticipate and welcome ongoing technological evolution.

Republican House leaders say the proposal for open Internet policies distracts from the FCC's mandate to come up with a national broadband plan. What's your response?

The Commission can tackle several initiatives at the same time.

Do you believe Google Voice should also be included in AT&T's commitment to bring VoIP services to their network for the iPhone?

I haven't looked in detail at the announcement, but I believe it is the Commission’s staff’s understanding that AT&T’s commitment includes all Internet-based calling -- and if Google Voice is an IP-based voice service, then presumably it is included in this announcement.

What do you make of reports that Comcast is interested in buying NBC? Will the FCC take a closer look at cable operators' acquisition of content providers?

The FCC does not speculate on proposed transactions.

By Cecilia Kang  |  October 8, 2009; 12:53 PM ET
 
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Comments

Read the Mobile Marvels special report to The Economist magazine (9/26/09) if you really want to know about the future of mobile telephones. The rest of the world is racing far ahead of U.S. mobile phone users. Banking, commerce, health and other simple applications are already changing the face of Africa and Asia. And all that is without broadband access while using prepay accounts in most areas. Give them broadband access and there will be not stopping the economic potential.

Posted by: thw2001 | October 8, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

"I believe it is the Commission’s staff’s understanding that AT&T’s commitment includes all Internet-based calling -- and if Google Voice is an IP-based voice service, then presumably it is included in this announcement."

It's concerning that after all of the involvement that the FCC has had with Google Voice that the chairman still doesn't know that Google Voice is NOT a VoIP service. Shouldn't he at least learn what the service is before he shapes the policy around it?

Posted by: misfo1 | October 8, 2009 2:42 PM | Report abuse

In his speech at CTIA today, Julius Genachowski said:

"When we say that we haven’t determined what we are going to do with handset exclusivity and we want your input, we
mean it. The same applies to an open Internet."

(See

http://hraunfoss.fcc.gov/edocs_public/attachmatch/DOC-293891A1.pdf

for the full text.)

But then, in this interview, he refers to "the rules I have proposed" -- meaning that the wording has already been decided. Also, from his speech at Brookings earlier this month, it appears that they may be very similar, if not identical, to the "four principles" published more than four years ago -- an eternity in Internet time.

Finally, the Commission's tentative agenda states that will be considering a "Notice of Proposed Rule Making" (NPRM) rather than a "Notice of Inquiry" (NOI). The latter would be more appropriate for a "data driven" agency which is seeking data before it acts, rather than acting on assumptions made without data gathering.

An NOI would also allow time for Comcast's challenge to the FCC's earlier order to be resolved, delineating the scope of the FCC's authority. And it would allow time for broadband mapping data to arrive, giving a picture of the competitive landscape.

Is the assertion that the Commission is asking for data in earnest? Or is it for show? I'd be much more likely to believe the Chairman's words if we were to see an NOI than if he pushes to go directly to an NPRM.

--Brett Glass

Posted by: squirma | October 8, 2009 2:58 PM | Report abuse

squirma,

It's quite possible that you do not understand how regulations are proposed, then implemented as the law states they should, but only have an understanding of how they are proposed and implemented under a Republican administration.

A proposal is a proposal - a draft of rules. Then the public has an opportunity to comment on the proposed rules. This means that people have the opportunity to tell the regulators where the rules should be changed, and why.

The difference between how the law states the process goes and how Republicans usually implement the regulations diverges at this point. The law states that the agency MUST consider ALL of the public comments and adjust the regulations in accordance with the validity of the public comment and other laws and regulations on the subject. Most Republicans select those comments that back their proposed regulations, then implement those proposed regulations, many times with no changes. In fact, many times under Republicans, industry writes the proposed regulations that are introduced by the agency, and then put into effect as proposed, public comment not even considered.

Guess why more Republican-proposed regulations (by a FAR margin) are struck down in the courts than those proposed as the law dictates they should be?

As to the comment on 'handset exclusivity'? Public comment is the time for you and your industry allies to make comments, and to let the FCC know how to handle that subject.

squirma, this is a different era from what you were used to for eight years. Regulations will be proposed and implemented much more in line with how the law states they should, not how on particular lobbying group thinks they should.

Posted by: critter69 | October 8, 2009 4:12 PM | Report abuse

"critter69", your remarks reflect a very strong partisan bias. And this, in fact, is one of the things that concerns me. Extreme partisanship seems to be the order of the day over there inside the Beltway, and this can make for bad and even destructive decision making.

One of my greatest concerns is that that the frantic rush toward "network neutrality" regulation by the Obama Administration may be due to the fact that Google's lobbyists successfully sold it to legislators as a partisan issue (even though it is really not), thus manipulating the Democrats into doing their bidding.

I fear that if this is the case, extreme and unwise rules will be railroaded through without proper consideration of the details or potential consequences, just as some legislation (such as the ARRA) was.

These concerns will be intensified if the FCC issues a Notice of Proposed Rule Making without having first done a Notice of Inquiry and proper data gathering. In the Comcast proceeding, none of the speakers testified under oath; there was no cross-examination or rebuttal; there was no independent investigation or fact checking by the FCC staff. As Commissioner McDowell mentioned in his dissent from the Comcast Order, the FCC made a decision without knowing the facts.

Chairman Genachowski, in his recent remarks, has cited some lobbyists' half-truths as if they were facts. Will this come out in the proceeding? One might hope so. But as one whose livelihood depends upon the outcome (onerous regulation would put me out of business), I'm worried.

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

Posted by: squirma | October 8, 2009 8:27 PM | Report abuse

Oh, for heavens sake, Brett.

This is not a partisan issue. It is a civil liberties issue, a communications issue, and a business issue.

AT&T is spending great heaping tons of money fighting net neutrality - as is Comcast - precisely because they want to do things that net neutrality would ban. AT&T's involvement in Republican opposition was so extreme the Wall Street Journal pointed it out.

I personally do not consider it good public policy to give either AT&T or Comcast a quasi-monopoly over access to news, commentary, and entertainment for a significant percentage of the population.

As you yourself pointed out, these rules were originally discussed four years ago - an eternity in Internet time, I think you called it. The rules are now up for public comment and review.

Four years of inquiry and fact finding are probably adequate, unless the goal is to stall. Time's up.

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | October 8, 2009 10:48 PM | Report abuse

"VirginiaGal2," I'll forgive you for not knowing your civics, but this is not at all a "civil liberties" issue. Civil liberties consist of rights which you have to carry on certain activities without interference by government. They don't bear on your interactions with non-government entities at all.

As for lobbying money: by far, the biggest lobbyist with regard to this onerous, unnecessary regulation is Google. It has literally bought itself entire organizations inside the Beltway -- including the New America Foundation, where it installed its CEO as Chairman.

Finally, the unenforceable "principles" to which the Chairman referred have not been tested in a legitimate proceeding with due process. (The Comcast proceeding consisted largely of a few public "cirsues." Witnesses did not testify under oath, there was no cross-examination, and the assertions of Comcast's "accusers" were never independently tested for validity or truthfulness.) The language of the "prniciples" was not properly considered or subjected to review by engineers or economists and has serious problems. And there has been no "fact finding" at all with respect to them -- merely lobbying.

To base rules on them would be to build on a dangerously flawed foundation.

Brett Glass
Owner and Founder, LARIAT
The world's first Wireless ISP (WISP)
http://www.brettglass.com/mailbrett.html

Posted by: squirma | October 9, 2009 1:21 AM | Report abuse

Brett, I'm afraid I know civil liberties a bit better than you. It is an interest of mine and has been for nearly 3 decades.

One's civil liberties can indeed be infringed by private entities. One easy way to demonstrate that is to look at the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which prohibits discriminatory acts by private entitities engaged in commerce (see the commerce clause of the Constitution for its authorization.)

That's why private entities are not allowed to force people to sit at the back of the bus or to eat at separate lunch counters. Nor are they allowed to limit jobs to particular genders, races, or other protected classes. That is forbidden, as a civil rights violation, even though they are not government entities.

As far as lobbying goes, the telcos have spent more than Google. Far more. Sad but true.

I'm afraid that you also miss the point that the rule making is in fact proceeding with due process, during which all of us - including you - get to give our input.

The language of the principles has been repeatedly discussed and debated, in great detail, in fact ad nauseum, by economists, engineers, and computer scientists, including in the aforementioned ACM article (see http://portal.acm.org/citation.cfm?id=1461928.1461942&coll=portal&dl=ACM&idx=J79∂=magazine&WantType=Magazines&title=Communications )

Any interested party not in a coma has had plenty of chance to debate, discuss, and suggest.

The core conflict, to me, is whether we continue to have a free and unfettered flow of information and commerce, or if we allow private near-monopolies to hold hostage our freedom of thought and commerce.

Posted by: VirginiaGal2 | October 9, 2009 11:35 AM | Report abuse

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