Posts Tagged Net Neutrality

FCC on Net Neutrality: A Step Forward

22 December 2010

The FCC approved new rules yesterday protecting net neutrality for the first time, bringing to a close a turbulent year of debate over how to best protect the open Internet and ensure the global network remains a vital platform for innovation. While the full text of the action is not yet available, key excerpts are available here, and it’s clear that there will be three new rules governing the ability of internet service providers to regulate the flow of information over their networks. 

First, internet service providers must be transparent in the ways they manage the flow of information over their networks. Second, providers of fixed broadband access are forbidden to block any legal content, applications, services or devices from the network. Third, providers may not “unreasonably discriminate” among content or users. These rules build on the principles laid out in the FCC’s 2005 Internet Policy Statement, codifying the ideal of an open, non-discriminatory internet into enforceable rules for the first time.

Reflecting the longstanding tenor of the net neutrality dispute, reaction to the FCC Report and Order has been dominated by criticism from the right (including FCC Commissioners McDowell and Baker, who voted against the action) that the rules are unnecessary and liable to stifle investment, and criticism from the left (including Commissioners Clyburn and Copps, who joined Chairman Genachowski in approving the measure) that the rules don’t go far enough in protecting the interests of internet users.

In particular, public interest groups and open internet advocates have criticized the FCC for excluding mobile networks from most of the protections afforded wired broadband. While blocking competitors’ apps and services will be outlawed, mobile network operators will retain a broad ability to manage their networks and prioritize content. As Chairman Genachowski explained in his remarks, there are technical issues that affect mobile that don’t exist on wired networks– there’s simply less capacity on mobile networks, and without an ability to actively manage traffic, mobile networks could quickly become overwhelmed and incapacitated by a few hyperactive users. 

Mobile is also different from wired broadband in that, for most consumers, the mobile industry is genuinely competitive. If you’re a Sprint customer, and Sprint blocks you from using third-party applications to pigeonhole you into using their own services, most people in this country are covered by at least three other major mobile networks.  As the mobile ecosystem continues to evolve, we’ll have to hope that the FCC will remain vigilant, and if anti-competitive, anti-consumer behavior by mobile networks operators becomes the norm, they will step in with stronger protections. For now, the FCC’s “measured steps” on mobile broadband are a prudent approach to regulating a dynamic industry.

The Report and Order also raises concerns about two other areas, without specifically regulating either. First, the FCC outlines four reasons why “pay for priority” arrangements– whereby a third party would pay the network operator to favor certain traffic over other– would probably violate the “unreasonable discrimination” rule. Second, the document describes “specialized services,” distinct from the internet but riding the same wires, including voice and video over IP. The FCC again pledges to monitor these services, and ensure that they’re not being used to evade the net neutrality rules. For now, we’ll have to take them at their word. As on mobile platforms, there’s extraordinary opportunity for innovative new services to arrive via broadband, and before there’s evidence of anti-consumer behavior by network providers, there’s no need to discourage innovation with preemptive rules.

In a blog post yesterday, the Chairman of our Globalization Initiative, Dr. Rob Shapiro, celebrated the end of the net neutrality fight. I hope he’s right, but I’m afraid this issue may linger for some time. Most troublingly, the FCC’s Report and Order does not stand on the strongest legal footing.  After the DC Circuit Court ruled earlier this year against the FCC in its suit charging Comcast with illegal content discrimination, the FCC’s authority to regulate the internet has been in some legal doubt. This lack of clarity should be troubling for both sides– network operators, because it continues uncertainty about the legal framework in which they will be working, and consumer advocates, because it puts these new rules protecting net neutrality in jeopardy. Ultimately, congressional action may be required to clarify the FCC’s authority and to establish clear rules of the road for this dynamic, exciting and important part of our economy.

Despite these ongoing issues, I applaud the FCC and Chairman Genachowski for finding a compromise on net neutrality that, for the first time, protects our open internet and the interests of internet users without impeding network providers in their continued investment in building the internet’s infrastructure.

Verizon & Google Propose a Legislative Path to Preserve the Open Internet

9 August 2010

Well, everything our trusted news outlets told us last week was wrong.  Google and Verizon weren’t cooking up a back-backroom scheme to undermine the open internet, nor were their talks about placing shipping containers full of Google servers in Verizon’s parking lots, as a NYT op-ed suggested (I couldn’t tell if it was serious speculation or a joke at the expense of the rumor-hungry tech media). 

Verizon & GoogleAs it turns out, their announcement, which is only the latest in a year of cooperation between the companies on this issue, is simply a suggested legislative framework for Congressional action on net neutrality– and a very moderate one, at that. In March, Tom Tauke, EVP of Verizon, gave a speech here at NDN in which he made the argument that Congress needed to write new legislation, clarifying the government’s role in regulating the internet. With their joint proposal, Google & Verizon have waded deeper into the specifics of how that legislation could be written.

The proposal offers clear support for the fundamental principles of net neutrality: ISPs would not be allowed to discriminate against any legal content, applications, or devices, and would be required to be transparent in their network management practices. The FCC would hold regulatory authority over the internet, enforcing consumer protection rules on a case-by-case basis, and would have the power to execute on their widely-lauded National Broadband Plan. The proposal does, however, have two important carve-outs, which I will address in turn:

Wireless. Mobile broadband is exempt from the proposed net neutrality rules, with the exception of the transparency requirement. The wireless market, they argue, is both more competitive and less mature than the wireline broadband market, and because of that, ought not be subject to new regulation. I think this is compelling.  The U.S. wireless market is legitimately competitive, unlike the wireline broadband market. I, for one, have but a single unsavory choice for broadband at my home– and that’s in a major city– but everyone has at least four options of wireless carrier. And wireless truly is changing rapidly: 3G networks, rolled out in the middle part of the last decade, completely changed the way we use our mobile devices, and as 4G networks spread in the next year or two, I think we’ll see yet another revolution. 

This blog is always keen to point out that the future of the internet lies on mobile devices, and eventually, the mobile internet will be virtually indistinguishable from wireline broadband. It’s important that the Google & Verizon proposal doesn’t rule out future regulation of the wireless space. In the proposal, the GAO is tasked with monitoring the wireless space to ensure it remains competitive and open, and consumer protection groups must remain vigilant as well. But for now, the market is working well, and consumers have options. While that persists, and while we see where wireless innovation leads us, I think it wise to avoid new regulation.

Differentiated Services.” This is a more complex carve-out, and one that raises more questions than it answers. Google & Verizon describe a network parallel to the “public internet” that could host such services as “health care monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment and gaming options.” The proposal explains that “Such other services would have to be distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service, but could make use of or access Internet content, applications or services and could include traffic prioritization.”

Critics of the plan worry that, despite assurances, this parallel network would serve as a loophole for ISPs to prioritize paid content at the expense of the free, open, “public” internet. That is a legitimate concern, and your support for this element of the plan will probably track with your trust that ISPs will be transparent and supportive of the broad principles laid out in this proposal. But I think the more important question is whether there is a role for the kind of services they describe, and whether there is a need for those services to run on a network separate from the “public” internet.

Global Mobile is a big booster of the role the global network could play in healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors. Connection technology could play a huge part in reducing healthcare costs, as has already been demonstrated around the world. Access to the world’s information will clearly be a crucial part of a 21st century education. And the smart grid– a necessary facet of energy reform in this country– will rely heavily on the broadband network. Is there a need to prioritize these types of information, and separate them from the “public” internet? Well, we don’t know because we haven’t tried.

The proposal puts the onus on the FCC to monitor these “differentiated services” and ensure that they’re not being used as an end-run around net neutrality rules. As in the mobile space, careful vigilance will be necessary to ensure this carve-out isn’t being exploited as a loophole. But provided these differentiated services don’t hamper the internet as we know it, there is ample room for ISPs to experiment with new services over their network, and help healthcare, education, energy, and other sectors innovate their way into the networked 21st century.

Bottom line: This is a serious contribution to a debate that has not always been sensible and reasoned.  It’s not the solution– just a compromise suggested by two of many stakeholders– and our policymakers will still have to make the final decisions. But I hope this proposal will provide critics on both sides a framework for more serious discussion.