FCC Split on Net Neutrality Plans

Despite spirited public protest both inside and outside its chambers -- with one audience member escorted out by security in the middle of the session -- the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) passed a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on "Protecting and Promoting the Open Internet" Thursday.

The move -- the latest in a series of net neutrality-related decisions and proclamations from the FCC -- formally sets in motion a process that could lead to paid priority access for some companies on the Internet.

The NPRM was approved by a 3-2 vote that split along party lines, with Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissenting from the majority. Democrats Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voted in favor of the rulemaking proposal, alongside FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

In the short term, the only thing the FCC has agreed to do in passing the controversial NPRM is to explore its options for regulating broadband service. The notice specifically seeks public comment on "the benefits of applying Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996 and Title II of the Communications Act, including the benefits of one approach over the other, to ensure the Internet remains an open platform for innovation and expression."

But, as further reading quickly indicates, the proposed rulemaking contains elements that could transform the US broadband landscape. Among other things, the notice raises the specter of "fast lanes" on the Internet for companies that pay for priority access and much tighter regulation of cable, telco, and other broadband providers. "While the Notice reflects a tentative conclusion that Section 706 presents the quickest and most resilient path forward per the court's guidance, it also makes clear that Title II remains a viable alternative and asks specifically which approach is better. In addition, the proposal asks whether paid prioritization arrangements, or "fast lanes," can be banned outright."

The issue of fast lanes has been a topic of heated debate ever since the FCC decided last month that it could allow broadband providers to offer paid, priority access to Internet bandwidth to companies like Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) Opponents of paid prioritization worry that this would effectively create a two-tiered system favoring companies that can pay for superior data delivery. (See Comcast's Cohen: Define Internet Fast Lanes and FCC's 'Middle Ground' Already Under Attack.)

Chairman Wheeler, who has championed the idea, sought to ease those concerns at this morning's meeting. Reiterating a pledge he made at the Cable Show last month, he said that the FCC would not allow a two-tiered system to develop. "If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have-nots, we will use every power to stop it." (See FCC's Wheeler: 'Internet Will Remain an Open Pathway'.)

He further explained his intentions by saying the FCC would consider it commercially unreasonable, and therefore prohibited, if a broadband provider slowed Internet speeds below the threshold described in a subscriber's paid-for service, blocked access to lawful content, or charged a content provider more money to use the bandwidth already paid for by an Internet subscriber. "When content provided by a firm such as Netflix reaches the consumer's network provider, it would be commercially unreasonable to charge the content provider to use that bandwidth for which the consumer had already paid."

Separate from the issue of fast lanes on the last mile of the Internet is the question of how or whether to regulate interconnection agreements between Internet service providers and transit providers like Level 3 Communications Inc. (NYSE: LVLT). Referring specifically to peering and interconnection agreements, Wheeler said today, "That's a different matter. It is better addressed separately."

In addition to considering fast lanes and nondiscrimination policies, the FCC's latest NPRM calls for comment on enhancing transparency rules, how mobile broadband users are impacted by net neutrality rules, and installing "an ombudsperson with significant enforcement authority to serve as a watchdog and advocate for start-ups, small businesses and consumers."

Reaction to the FCC vote was swift and predictable. The National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) pledged to "work constructively with the FCC and other stakeholders" to "develop a balanced approach that protects the open Internet." However, the trade group also warned against imposing "the heavy-handed regulatory yoke of Title II" on cable operators and other providers.

The American Civil Liberties Union criticized the fast-lanes concept but applauded the idea of regulating broadband providers more closely. And MoveOn, which staged loud protests at the FCC's headquarters and elsewhere, slammed the effort to advance a "two-tiered Internet."

— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading

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Mitch Wagner 5/20/2014 | 12:11:12 PM
Re: Already legal? Kq4ym - Given the way video and voice are moving to IP, all consumers will soon be high-speed users. Businesses too if the videoconferencing vendors and evangelists get their way.
kq4ym 5/18/2014 | 6:04:53 PM
Re: Already legal? The commissioners are being politically  correct at this time, not trying to rock the boat too much, untill they get the corportations and hopefully the public behind the proposed new rules. It's a safe bet through that the internet will soon be changing, and probably end up with higher costs to users who may ultimately foot the bill for the extra charges placed on high speed users.
Mitch Wagner 5/17/2014 | 4:34:34 PM
Re: Bandwidth caps It's not just big business that wants fast lanes. For example, all video providers, no matter what the size, need high throughput and low latency. And they should have them -- for a price.
Mitch Wagner 5/16/2014 | 7:18:32 PM
Already legal? The FCC doesn't have to authorize Internet fast lanes—they're already legal.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler repeatedly said today that his network neutrality proposal doesn't authorize Internet fast lanes.

"This proposal does not provide or mandate paid prioritization," he said to reporters after the FCC's vote. "There is nothing in this proposal that authorizes a fast lane. We ask questions but don't jump to conclusions."

So has everyone who called this a "fast lane" proposal gotten the story wrong? Not exactly.

As Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said during today's meeting, there are no rules at all against Internet service providers blocking traffic or prioritizing some content over others. That's because a federal appeals court this year overturned the FCC's previous net neutrality order, issued in 2010.

brookseven 5/16/2014 | 5:48:10 PM
Re: The technical community Dennis,

I had this conversation with Duh! outside of these forums.  One of the first clicks through to my blog was from a site that was an advocacy site that was all about telecom and internet services.

I looked at the article and said:

- IP was replacing POTS and ATM because those protocols could not be intercepted.

- IP was the first convergence protocol

When Duh! and I messaged about this, I was very concerned that people that are reading such sites are still making voting decisions.  These decisions are based on not just no information but bad information.  I also feel obligated to post on these topics when they come up.


mendyk 5/16/2014 | 4:50:35 PM
Re: The technical community Agreed -- it's a steep uphill climb, but one worth making.
Duh! 5/16/2014 | 4:34:39 PM
Re: The technical community This is the way of the world. 

In my experience, about half the regulators and all the politicians are ideologues.  The rest of the regulators are intelligent and can be reasoned with, even if you sometimes have to spoon feed them.  That includes bureau chiefs and staff as well as commissioners.  Between having Henning Schulzrinne and a few high powered Technical Advisory Councils, they do have competent technical resources to draw on. 

And anything we do to shed light has to be better than nothing.
mendyk 5/16/2014 | 3:37:36 PM
Re: The technical community The technical community may know more about this than everyone else, but the reality is that policy will continue to be set by regulators, politicians, and others who don't necessarily have the depth of knowledge that you may think they need. This reality isn't limited to telecom regulation -- the people who think they know most about issues often play an insignificant role in making the rules. There's no clear and easy way to fix this.
brookseven 5/16/2014 | 12:50:00 PM
Re: The technical community Duh,

As you and I have discussed in other forums, I think this is very important.  We need to get the technical details right.

On top of that we need a model for the lay person for a comparison.  Right now our technical lingo runs right by them.  Tubes doesn't work, Fast Lane doesn't work.

Okay so, let me suggest a model that does work.  The famous Big Rock Model.  Video - the only thing that really matters here - is the Big Rock.  Unless you put them in first then the Sand will fill the container and block the ability to get the Big Rocks in.

Look forward to hearing other replacement models.




Duh! 5/16/2014 | 11:22:16 AM
The technical community The public "Net Neutrality" debate is an extension of the QOS vs one-size-fits-all debates that the technical community has been having since about 1990.  The issues are subtle.  But at least we could argue them on a ground of more-or-less common understanding of how the ARPAnet/Internet works, even if we couldn't agree on the fundamental question of scarcity vs abundance.  These days, it is pretty much impossible to be heard over the shouting of the ignorant mob.

We in the technical community have somewhat of an obligation to try to improve the quality of the debate by debunking demonstratably false arguments and clearing up misconceptions. 

One thing has bothered me in particular:  the utterly inapt "fast lane on the information superhighway"  metaphor.  We all know that the Internet does not behave anything at all like a highway.  But the misconception that it does leads people to pretty extreme conclusions.  I've written about this here before, and expanded those ideas in my blog

Can all of us - regardless of where we have stood on the technical debate - please help clear up ignorance and misconceptions whenever we can?
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