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FCC's Wheeler: 'Internet Will Remain an Open Pathway'

Mari Silbey

LOS ANGELES -- The Cable Show -- In a blistering speech at The Cable Show on Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler forcefully restated his agency's commitment to an open Internet. "Our goal is rules that will encourage broadband providers to continually upgrade service for all," Wheeler said. "We will follow the court's blueprint for achieving this, and I must warn you that we will look skeptically on exceptions."

Importantly, Wheeler also announced that, even though he believes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's current path will produce effective rules for managing broadband, that "does not mean I will hesitate to use Title II if warranted." He was referring to the idea of reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service -- and therefore regulating it much more heavily than it is today.

The tone of the speech was undoubtedly in response to the recent outcry over the chairman's proposed plan to allow broadband providers to create and charge for network "fast lanes" for customers like Netflix. Wheeler addressed this issue directly by saying, "If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have nots, we will use every power at our disposal to stop it." (See FCC's 'Middle Ground' Already Under Attack.)

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler makes his point.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler makes his point.

One issue in the debate over selling premium access to last-mile bandwidth is the fact that there is no visibility into how that capacity is allocated between the public Internet and private, managed services. On that front, broadband providers could end up with more incentive to invest in and improve services for commercial customers while letting performance degrade for consumers.

However, Wheeler made it very clear that he has no plans to let that happen. He pointed out that there is very limited regulation today as far as broadband is concerned, but he suggested in no uncertain terms that, if providers don't keep up their end of the bargain to provide a high-quality service to consumers, the regulatory situation could change dramatically.

He also gave a nod to municipal broadband efforts. "If municipal governments… want to pursue [selling broadband service], they shouldn't be inhibited by state laws. I believe the FCC has the power… to prevent state laws that ban competition from community broadband."

Repeatedly, Wheeler emphasized the mantra of "competition, competition, competition." However, perhaps ironically, in a panel following the chairman's speech on stage, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) CEO Brian Roberts and Charter Communications Inc. CEO Tom Rutledge were spotlighted for recently announced plans that would give them both significant control of the cable market. Showtime Networks Inc. CEO Matt Blank, who joined them on the panel, joked, "It's great to be up here with the entire cable industry now." (See Comcast to Send Subs to Charter if TWC Deal Closes.)

— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading

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User Rank: Light Sabre
5/2/2014 | 2:37:59 PM
He's clearly assuming we're dumb sheep
Okay, so he's a good liar.  The actual proposal on the table makes it clear that he wants nothing to do with an open internet or network neutrality.  The fact that he says a bunch of words that contradict that is irrelevant.  It just means he doesn't like being painted as a stooge.

If there were real competition in the United States, then this wouldn't matter.  Different ISPs could take different approaches and the people would vote with their feet. 

Certainly the "encourage municipal internet" part of this is interesting, though obviously decades away from being material.  And of course it isn't clear the FCC actually has the authority to do this, and will certainly be challenged in court IF AND WHEN they ever actually try anything here.  Which they HAVEN'T yet, despite his words.

I don't trust him.  I don't believe him.  I am very very very unhappy with Obama for breaking his promises on this matter (see http://billmoyers.com/segment/bill-moyers-essay-what-happened-to-obamas-promised-net-neutrality/ for some nice film clips of Obama the candidate).

Its time for the internet to rise up again.
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/2/2014 | 12:51:21 PM
Re: I guess I don't get it
In the end, I think it's simply an approach that people will pay different amounts to access different content.

Today, we pay $40 or so for Internet access and our cost to access each site is the same--bundled, really.

It's sort of the reverse situation with cable TV, whereby users want unbundled cable, but can't get it.  Here, we'd rather have a flat rate (I think, anyway) and we'll have that plus a premium to go to certain sites.

Netflix will be the new HBO, a premium channel on top of the basic Internet bundle. 

It's no different, I think, than the way cable TV works except that you could make a fair argument that there is some censorship or overall information control if sites like Yahoo or Google or branches from them become premium.

Problem is, users paying optionally to get content (paywalls for newspapers) hasn't been that successful, so information providers will like this just as much as video streamers.
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/1/2014 | 11:00:09 AM
Re: I guess I don't get it
We really ought to stop using this "fast lane on the Information Superhighway" metaphor.  The behavior of a road system in carrying individual cars is completely unlike the behavior of the Internet in carrying a duality of individual packets and flows.  How do you map packet drop policies - tail drop, RED, FRED etc. - to congestion handling on a highway -- artillery pieces at intersections to blow up random cars?  How about TCP slow start and congestion avoidance? 

Once we start thinking about the behavior of the Internet on its own terms, we can start thinking in terms of 25 years of research, standardization and experience in integrated services networks.  We can introduce the notion of "Best Effort Service" into the debate, and explain the while Best Effort is the default service, it is optimized for "Elastic" flows.  These can coexist peacefully with "Inelastic" flows,  using a "Premium" service that includes bandwidth reservation, traffic conditioning, complex scheduling disciplines (like WFQ), and admission control.  It's not a zero-sum game.  In fact, if anything, isolating non-TCP responsive flows from TCP responsive flows will improve the performance of both.

The risk is that admission control policy will either be absent or too permissive, shrinking the "pool" of Best Effort bandwidth to the point that packet loss and variable delay for Best Effort flows become unacceptable.  This is the big challenge for the FCC.  I'm pretty convinced that they can get this right, but also aware that it will be difficult, and that any loopholes will be exploited.

Does this make sense?  And how can it be explained to a non-technical audience?
User Rank: Light Sabre
5/1/2014 | 10:12:59 AM
Re: I guess I don't get it

Disney has all kinds of Fast Lane Access...my HD version of that Fast Lane is on channel 724.

User Rank: Light Sabre
5/1/2014 | 10:05:58 AM
Re: I guess I don't get it
Is Netflix really getting "fast lanes". I don't think so. People are in such an uproar that Netflix will pay Comcast and Verizon for access, but this is not new. It's similar to an Akamai or Velocix putting CDNs in ISP networks. It's another peering relationship. Netflix is popular so it makes sense to have the servers as close to the edge as possible with more bandwidth to avoid negative experiences for customers. The ISP in this case has to support space, power, high speed interfaces, routers, etc., so why is it so wrong for Netflix to pay them? This is not a net neutrality issue, it's how the Internet works. What is popular gets priority.
User Rank: Blogger
4/30/2014 | 9:20:39 PM
Re: I guess I don't get it
For now, it's a lot of talk. I think he's determined to let carriers try to manage themselves through the introduction of premium services, perhaps betting that a lot of people won't notice degradation, or won't complain in large enough numbers.
User Rank: Blogger
4/30/2014 | 6:53:50 PM
Re: I guess I don't get it
Can't wait!!!
User Rank: Light Sabre
4/30/2014 | 6:41:51 PM
Re: I guess I don't get it
Easy.  Most can hitchhike on the shoulder, while others go in the fast lanes.  There isn't a quota of how many can be on the highway.  Just for some, it truly is a pathway.
User Rank: Blogger
4/30/2014 | 6:34:09 PM
I guess I don't get it
I guess I don't get it. How can creating "fast lanes" for the Internet result in an "open pathway for all?"

As long as the pathway is open and you can ride down it in your horse and buggy it doesn't matter if others can get barrel past in the fast lane? 

Am I missing something? Seems like a cognitive disconnect to me.
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