FCC Chairman Pushes for Net Neutrality Rules

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chairman Julius Genachowski today said he is starting the process for making network neutrality rules that would prevent broadband service providers from blocking or degrading content and applications beyond the use of reasonable network management techniques.

Genachowski, in his speech this morning at the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., notes he will soon circulate a set of proposed rules to the other commissioners with the hope of later issuing a more formal "Notice of Proposed Rulemaking" (NPRM) that will be open to public comment.

Genachowski, head of the agency charged with delivering a National Broadband Plan to Congress by Feb. 17, 2010, said comments will also be used to address how the new rules should apply to mobile broadband services. The FCC has launched a new Website to facilitate the discussion.

In line with the broader effort, Genachowski proposed that a new set of codified, enforceable rules also add two new principles -- non-discrimination and transparency -- to the four already making up the FCC's "Policy Statement" on net neutrality. That statement, issued in 2005 when Kevin Martin led the FCC, already prohibits network operators from preventing users from accessing lawful Internet content, applications, and services, and allows consumers to attach "non-harmful" devices to an ISP network.

Genachowski said the fifth principle of non-discrimination will ensure that service providers "cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others in the connection to subscribers' homes."

The sixth principle, transparency, calls on Internet service providers to fully disclose how they are managing their broadband networks and how those techniques could affect customers.

Both proposed principles are directed, in part, at Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK), which was censured by the FCC in 2008 for throttling some upstream peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic and for not being clear about its network management techniques. Comcast has since migrated to a new "protocol agnostic" system, but is trying to get a court to overturn the FCC's order, holding that the FCC overstepped its authority because it handed down the order in the absence of any official law or rule. (See Comcast Fights FCC Net Neutrality Order , FCC Throttles Comcast, and Comcast Goes 'Protocol Agnostic' Everywhere .)

Comcast, however, already appears to be okay with the rule-making process as outlined by the new FCC chairman.

Comcast "completely agree[s] that any consideration of new 'rules of the road' begin with notice and an open, public rulemaking proceeding -- this is both fair and appropriate," Comcast EVP David L. Cohen noted in a blog post.

Genachowski, meanwhile, was careful to point out that the non-discrimination principle would not prevent ISPs from "reasonably managing" their broadband networks. "During periods of network congestion, for example, it may be appropriate for providers to ensure that very heavy users do not crowd out everyone else," he said.

That may be good news for Comcast and its new bandwidth management system, which slows down some connections temporarily when the network is congested. But more discussion awaits for Cox Communications Inc. , which is testing an Internet traffic management system that briefly delays some "non-time-sensitive" packets (e.g., file uploads, peer-to-peer, and Usenet) when congestion is detected. Cox has stressed that such delays are the exception, not the norm, and a fair way to distribute network resources, but Vuze Inc. has already complained that the system would treat P2P apps as "second-class citizens." Cox had no immediate comment on the FCC chairman's rule-making plan. (See Cox: Packet Delays Won't Hurt, Cox to Test New Bandwidth Cop , and Vuze Chirps at Cox.)

Genachowski, meanwhile, is apparently open to allowing ISPs to offer "managed services" that, for example, might enable a cable MSO to provide a quality of service component to a Web TV offering, but only in limited circumstances. (See Cable Crafts 'Turbo' Option.)

"I believe such services can supplement -- but must not supplant -- free and open Internet access, and that we must ensure that ample bandwidth exists for all Internet users and innovators," Genachowski said.

— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News

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