FCC Sets Sail on Internet Rulemaking
This morning, the FCC unanimously approved a draft set of network neutrality rules aimed at "preserving a free and open Internet," but the two Republican commissioners dissented in part, because they aren't entirely convinced that the Internet is broken nor that the government is best cast in the role of Mr. Fix-It.
The Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) will focus on six core "principles." The FCC established the first four in 2005 when it issued a net neutrality Policy Statement saying network operators can't prevent users from accessing lawful Internet content. The statement also says consumers can attach "non-harmful" devices to an ISP network.
The two new principles are: non-discrimination (to ensure that service providers "cannot block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks") and transparency (a rule that will require broadband ISPs to fully disclose how they are managing their broadband networks and how those techniques could affect customers). (See FCC Chairman Pushes for Net Neutrality Rules .)
The FCC stressed that the proposal allows broadband service providers to use "reasonable network management techniques," but the final rules will help determine what will and won't be allowed.
Managed and wireless
The draft rules will also include the definition of "managed or specialized" IP offerings that coexist with regular broadband Internet access services. Some applications and services falling under that umbrella include subscription video -- such as AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s U-verse service -- and VoIP, as well as business-class, Smart Grid, telemedicine, and e-learning services.
The FCC is also giving a special look at how these new rules will be applied to wireless broadband services (including satellite), attempting to account for some of the differences they might have with their wireline counterparts in terms of speed levels and network management practices.
The FCC didn't say when it will vote on the final rules, but it's not likely to happen before mid-2010, because the comment period on the NPRM runs through Jan. 14, with reply comments due on March 5.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski pledged that the rules will be created on hard facts rather than politics, and will be "high level and not heavy-handed."
"An open Internet deserves an open process," he added. The Chairman also countered complaints that the rules would stymie private sector investment, holding that ISPs continue to invest heavily in their broadband networks. (See FCC's Net Neutrality Plan Faces New Attack.)
Still, the two Republicans on the five-member Commission -- Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker -- dissented in part.
Both said they are in favor of preserving a free and open Internet but weren't completely on board with all the aims of the NPRM.
Commissioner Attwell Baker said she still isn't convinced that there are enough examples on the record indicating that a problem exists that should be addressed by FCC rules.
McDowell, meanwhile, said he didn't share the notion that "the Internet is showing breaks and cracks," or that the "government is the best tool to fix it."
He also warned that the FCC must tread carefully on the subject of reasonable network management, holding that "discriminatory" does not necessarily mean "anti-competitive," particularly from an engineering perspective. By way of example, he said the delivery of bits for a video application should get priority over bits associated with an email.
The focus on reasonable network management and transparency of those techniques has largely come about due to an FCC order finding that Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) violated the FCC's Internet principles by throttling some peer-to-peer applications. The MSO has moved to a "protocol agnostic" bandwidth management system, but is appealing the order anyway. (See FCC Throttles Comcast and Comcast Fights FCC Net Neutrality Order .)
The final definitions of what the FCC will deem as reasonable network management will emerge from the rulemaking process. However, the Commission's already identified some general items that are OK, such as managing network congestion, addressing harmful or unwanted traffic (viruses, spam, etc.), and preventing the distribution of unlawful content.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Site Editor, Cable Digital News