FCC Recap: Net Neutrality Is Alive!

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) got its game on yesterday, taking action on net neutrality, wireless broadband, and video competitiveness in the multiple dwelling unit (MDU) market.

Net neutral notices
On the contentious network neutrality issue, the Commission decided to look into whether or not broadband providers are charging some businesses for "fast lanes" on the Internet. (See Google, Skype Argue for Net Neutrality .)

The Commission released a "notice of inquiry," asking broadband industry players and consumer groups to file comments with the commission on the subject. The FCC wants to know if it should take further steps to make sure no business or consumer is being unfairly denied access to the Internet. (See AT&T's Whitacre: 'Nobody Gets a Free Ride'.)

"The Commission is ready, willing, and able to step in if necessary," chairman Martin said in a statement Thursday. "We seek comment on how broadband providers are managing their Internet traffic, whether certain traffic is prioritized, and whether our policies should distinguish between content providers that charge end users for access to content and those that do not." (See FCC's Martin Preaches Competition.)

The Commission may be moving to enhance its own rules on the issue now, because the cause for network neutrality legislation seems to have lost its footing on Capital Hill. A coalition of tech and consumer groups want binding legislation prohibiting big ISPs like AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ) from selling "fast lanes" on the Internet to rich business customers at the expense of smaller competitors that can't afford to pay. The debate seems stuck on the question: Why pass a law prohibiting something that hasn't happened yet?

"If FCC Chairman Kevin Martin or any of his colleagues has any doubt about whether this threat to the Internet is real, they need look no further than the statements made by the heads of the nation's biggest telephone and cable companies," says Frannie Wellings of the consumer group, Save the Internet. "They've announced their plans to discriminate, to put toll booths on the information superhighway."

Broadband wireless boost
The FCC classified broadband wireless as an "information service" Thursday.

The Commission already had labeled cable, DSL, and powerline broadband as information services, meaning that providers of those services no longer must share their facilities with competitors. It now extends that exemption to wireless broadband carriers. (See Supremes Sing Cable's Praises and FCC Zaps Broadband Carriage Regs.)

The FCC believes consumers are fast discovering wireless broadband. The commission released a study in January, which found that the number of high-speed wireless lines in use grew 2,800 percent between June 2005 and June 2006.

Multiple dispute units
Finally, on Thursday, the FCC said it would look at "exclusive contracts" between owners of MDUs and video providers. The commission wants to know if video providers (cable, IPTV, or satellite) should be made to acquire apartment dwelling subscribers one by one or whole buildings at a time. Cable MSOs, for example, often strike deals to act as "house video provider" for entire apartment buildings. (See Verizon Touts FiOS Apartment Plan.)

The commission says, tentatively, that it has the authority to rule on the matter. That could happen after it has gathered comments from consumer and industry groups via the "notice of inquiry" it released Thursday.

A tenant-by-tenant ruling would further ease the entry of Telco TV players like Verizon (FiOS) and AT&T (U-verse) into markets traditionally served by cable. (See FCC Favors Apartment Tenants.)

AT&T and Verizon referred us to their trade organization, United States Telecom Association (USTelecom) , which said it was unfair for apartment dwellers to be "held hostage to these long-term exclusive cable contracts that force them to go with one video provider or none at all." Sniff, sniff.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) had no comment.

— Mark Sullivan, Reporter, Light Reading

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