US Advisory Group Looks At FCC Net Neutrality Principles As Decision Looms

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A technical advisory group is working to drill down on key issues surrounding the US Federal Communications Commission’s proposed internet neutrality principles, but the agency is prepared to make a final decision in the end about how those principles are implemented, a senior FCC official said Thursday.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski in December requested such a group to discuss issues such as “reasonable network management,” how network providers deal with viruses and malware, denial-of-service attacks, unlawful content, congestion, quality of service, and the distinction between managed services and public internet access.

During a Broadband Industry Practices National Town Hall Webcast Debate On Net Neutrality sponsored by Broadband US TV, TV Mainstream and National League of Cities TV, Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC Office of Engineering and Technology, said service provider entities such as AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, as well as individuals from academia, public interest groups, and the standards community, are involved in such talks. The FCC’s suggested open internet access rules are proposed to be platform-neutral but there are some technical differences between platforms – e.g., capacity constraints with wireless networks on a spectrum-based service – that need to be considered.

Asked whether he was optimistic that the group could voluntarily come up with solutions to these problems, Knapp said the charge for the group is not necessarily to develop a consensus.

“It’s hard to say whether we will reach a point that everybody is seeing it the same way. And candidly, there are some different points of view,” he said. In the end, most parties may agree on certain issues, but on others, the FCC “may have to make a decision as to how things are implemented.”

In April, a Washington, DC circuit court said the FCC did not have authority to regulate Comcast’s network management. After the Comcast decision, questions arose whether the FCC could restore its authority over broadband and internet access if it reclassified access as a telecommunications service. The FCC proposes to do this under what it refers to as its “third way.”

The so-called “third way”, unveiled this month, is a proposed legal framework for how the FCC wants to address the Comcast decision. It would, in part: recognise only the transmission component of broadband access service as a telecommunications service; and apply certain provisions of Title II of the Communications Act that, prior to the Comcast decision, were widely believed to be within the FCC’s purview for broadband. Portions of Title II give the FCC direct authority over entities providing “telecommunications services.”

“From the consumer’s perspective … this is really the only reasonable way to view the service,” explained FCC General Counsel Austin Schlick. “It allows the user to get where they want to go on the internet and, in addition, provides some information.”

The FCC would keep the information (content) component unregulated but would use 1996 congressional authority given to the agency to apply common carrier rules of Title II to broadband policies regarding universal service, and privacy protections, Schlick said.

A group of key Democratic senators and congressmen on 24 May announced that they will “start a process to develop proposals” to update the Communications Act. The first step will be to invite stakeholders to participate in a series of “bipartisan, issue-focused meetings” beginning in June. A list of topics for discussion and details will follow.

On Thursday, stakeholder groups were asked what’s at stake as the agency debates just how much regulation should be imposed.

“What’s really at stake here is, now that we all depend on the internet, how is it going to keep growing?” asked Harold Feld, legal director of Public Knowledge.

He cited recent US headlines like the Wall Street financial meltdown and BP oil spills as other examples where, when left completely up to industry alone, disaster may happen.

“When something really bad happens you need some clear rules … to make sure everybody knows what they’re getting and everybody expects to get what they paid for,” he said. With the US being critically dependent on broadband, he added, “how happy are we just rolling the dice?”

C. Lincoln Hoewing, assistant vice president of internet and technology issues for Verizon, said industry is not saying there is no role for government, just that its role needs to be one that encourages investment and fits today’s modern technologies.

Meanwhile, Congressional Representative Cliff Stearns, a Florida Republican, introduced a bill this month that requires the FCC to conduct a market analysis and prove a market failure exists before mandating new network regulations. Stearns called Genachowski’s decision to recognise broadband as a Title II service – allowing the FCC to impose regulations – a “partisan manoeuvre to regulate the internet.”

“Net regulation will discourage investment and innovation precisely when we need it most, especially in light of our push to increase broadband deployment,” he added.

That bill is being met with criticism from group such as Free Press, which called the bill a “political stunt.”

The bill “actually includes a requirement that any future network neutrality rule be applied to all websites and internet content, not just to the physical infrastructure of broadband networks. In other words, with this bill Representative Stearns literally seeks to create a fairness doctrine for the internet,” said Free Press Research Director S. Derek Turner.

On 26 May, Rep. Mike Doyle, a Pennsylvania Democrat, sent a letter to Genachowski regarding the “third way,” and urged the FCC to reclassify residential broadband services as Title II telecommunications services. He also said Congress should review and update the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Liza Porteus Viana may be reached at lizapviana@gmail.com.

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