On June 17, the commissioners of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted 3 to 2 to open a notice of inquiry that will solicit comments from interested parties on what action the FCC should take next to implement net neutrality—or not. The FCC has put forth three basic alternatives: the status quo with no regulation of the Internet, full regulation under Title II of the common-carrier service regulations that telephone companies have to live by, or Chairman Genachowski’s “third way,” which only uses part of Title II’s regulations to guide Internet access. The FCC is also interested in other options. You have until July 15 to send your comments. August 15 is the deadline for replies to comments. For details, go to www.fcc.gov.
With net neutrality, Internet service providers (ISPs) would have to treat all Internet traffic equally, in terms of transmission and access. Such rules would essentially give the FCC a say in managing and controlling the networks. Most telecom and cable companies, though, want internal control over how they would handle massive data extremes and access so their systems won’t overload and deny service to anyone. This doesn’t seem to be a major problem in the wired networks, but it could hamper wireless ISPs as they deal with the growing mobile data explosion thanks to the smart-phone rollout. The carriers say that regulation will discourage investment and slow down the needed build-out.
The big carriers like AT&T and Verizon and the cable companies like Time Warner and Comcast firmly oppose any net neutrality rules. They claim that there are no glaring problems to be solved by regulation. Yet companies like Google, Yahoo, eBay, Cisco, Amazon, and others all like the idea of rules that favor the consumer and keep a tight rein on the companies that build and run the networks. The Open Internet Coalition has lofty goals that are worth pursuing but seem to ignore the practical side of engineering, building, and maintaining the networks that make the Internet happen. The OIC is pushing for rules that will “protect” the consumer from the guys that control the networks.
To counter the FCC’s movement on this issue, the big carriers and some of their competition have formed the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group (BITAG) to find a way to cooperate and propose a compromise that will work for everyone. AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, and some other ISPs have come together with Google, Microsoft, and Intel to advise the FCC on the engineering side of net neutrality. Hopefully this will soften the blow to the ISPs but give the others what they want in full open, anytime, anything access.
On top of all that, Congress is also now assessing its potential role, possibly proposing its own solution or at least granting the FCC powers to do what it thinks best. While Congress has expressed an interest in revising the Communications Act to include Internet regulation, it will be years before it gets around to it. In the meantime, the FCC feels it must act if it is to successfully implement its National Broadband Plan.
In the past few weeks, the FCC has been holding closed-door meetings with the big phone and cable companies and selected ISPs to find a compromise solution. The FCC’s objective is not to over-regulate but to ensure that it can impose net neutrality if it ever really becomes an issue.
Anyway, we are one step closer to some kind of Internet regulation regardless. Hopefully the new rules won’t impose rates or require the sharing of networks with others. Let’s just hope that the forthcoming rules will be light-handed, the unintended consequences are things we can live with, and the FCC does not stifle the greatest technological development of the past two centuries.