Net neutrality: the FCC takes back the ball

There’s some movement in the U.S. network neutrality debates under a rather dry heading: “Further Inquiry Into Two Under-Developed Issues in the Open Internet Proceeding.”

So far: a couple weeks ago Google and Verizon announced a “legislative framework proposal” to “preserve the open Internet and the vibrant and innovative markets it supports, to protect consumers, and to promote continued investment in broadband access,”  blogged here.  The proposal emerged in the vacuum created by a Federal court ruling overturning the FCC’s regulation of Comcast’s throttling of peer-to-peer traffic, and it was criticized harshly by a number of open Internet advocates as an undue boon to the network providers’ interests.

Now the FCC has re-entered the picture with its September “further inquiry,” and done so with a deft touch.  First, by seeking additional comments, the document makes it clear that its “NPRM” — a proceeding to craft rules to promote an open Internet that many thought the Comcast decision had derailed — is still alive.  Exactly how any rules will be made is not discussed; instead, the FCC notes the areas where consensus has been reached: some conception of net neutrality is a good idea, at least on non-wireless platforms; that network practices should be disclosed; that net neurality shouldn’t preclude reasonable network management practices by ISPs; and that case-by-case, flexible adjudication beats lengthy and complex rules.

That’s an astute move: to the extent that the Google/Verizon document represented horse trading — “I’ll agree that net neutrality should apply to wired networks if you agree that it’s too soon to talk about rules for wireless” — the FCC has moved rhetorically to lock in the parts of the deal that most embrace an open Internet by pointing out that there’s now consensus on those points.

That leaves the most controversial parts of the agreement as objects for further inquiry, and it’s where the FCC is looking for more public comments.  These “under-developed issues” are on the confusing “specialized services” and the less confusing (but no less challenged) wireless proposed exemptions (or at least temporary relief) from net neutrality rules.

There, the FCC offers a lucid and measured summary of the state of play on each issue, along with some initial thoughts on ways to resolve each, drawing from among the many comments already received from industry and public interest participants.  For specialized services, there’s the question of what happens when a network provider wants to use the pipe it has into someone’s house or business for something independent of vanilla Internet broadband.  There are legacy examples of this: the same wires that carry a phone company’s Internet DSL service carry regular old telephone service, too; and the same cable company coax that carries broadband also carries cable TV.  Indeed, those “specialized” services used to be the main ones, with the Internet as the afterthought.

It would be strange to say that the same net neutrality principles that mean Comcast can’t favor access to cnn.com over foxnews.com also ought to mean that Comcast can’t favor MTV over Animal Planet in basic cable.  Basic cable is Comcast’s to fill as it pleases, conducting all sorts of deals to figure out whether a new channel should be cute cats or pay-per-view boxing.  (To be sure, this is with the exception of the byzantine and ill-considered “must carry” rules that give legacy TV broadcasters a chance to demand a corresponding cable channel without having to negotiate a deal for it — while also allowing those broadcasters to refuse to allow the cable company to carry the channels unless they cut a deal.  That’s Congress’s mess, though, not the FCC’s.)

So the strongest view against specialized services might be: OK, network providers, maybe you keep your legacy specialized services, but other than that, we want you to use your bandwidth for open Internet.  But then one could see new specialized services shoehorned in via one’s telephone (“Look, a new handset with a screen to plug into the regular phone line!”) or cable (“A new channel called the Best of YouTube, with fast forward, rewind, and favorite buttons on my cable remote!”).  The puzzle is: if we want to give those legacy modalities a chance to freshen up, or even contemplate new kinds of specialized services not anchored in the old ones, can we do it without the prospect of diminishing the open Internet that’s currently so popular over those very wires?  The Internet tail stands to wag the telco/cable/TV dog to which it was first attached; how to mediate between them now, if at all, should the dog (and its more proprietary frame) stage a comeback?

Check out pp. 2-4 of the FCC’s document for its own view of the issue, along with some approaches that could help situate specialized services without simply banning them.  I’m intrigued with the idea of guaranteed capacity for regular Internet service — in other words, new specialized services should not be used to shrink the pie for regular Internet offerings.  Experimentation could continue apace on the open Internet, with some of its best results then bottled up and offered sleekly through a more appliancized offering.  So long as there’s still general public access to and broad usage of the regular Internet, a hybrid ecosystem could offer the best of both worlds.  In a way, it’s preferable to have generative and “sterile” environments side-by-side than to have generative environments compete with “contingently generative” ones.  The latter is like the case of the iPhone — to a developer, it acts just like the open PC environment, where anyone can code for it and reach consumers, until it doesn’t — Apple bans a particular app or changes its rules after achieving huge market share.

And speaking of mobile smartphones, there’s then the question of wireless.  Some net neutrality advocates might ask: what question, saying that it should be treated the same as everything else — as Internet protocols intended.  Others, most directly the wireless carriers themselves, say that nondiscrimination rules will constrain their investment in building out the more nascent wireless infrastructure.  Again the FCC lays out some options, and for the first time that I’ve seen, asks the question not only of net neutrality for use of wireless bandwidth, but app neutrality for developers’ access to a smartphone platform’s app store.  The Future of the Internet has my own views on that question, and the FCC neatly asks if perhaps rules on one could help justify an absence of rules on the other: maybe app neutrality would make us worry less about network discrimination, or net neutrality could still permit app discrimination.

Despite the nondescript eponymous title that suggests that it’s just another abstruse government document, the FCC’s further inquiry is worth a read.  And its contents signal that regulators can be reassuringly versed in the topics they’ve taken up, even as their power to regulate remains in question.  There are still some moves the FCC could make to create net neutrality rules in the absence of a new statute, and without mentioning (much less taking) them, the invitation to comment is one the major parties to the debate won’t ignore.

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1 Response

  1. Matt says:

    The wireless exceptions seem a bit of a trojan horse, since it is quite plausible that wireless becomes the overwhelmingly standard mode of net access in the future.

    Ie, the telcos appear to be offering to concede on horse-and-buggy regulation, in exchange for freedom from regulation on new fangled automobiles.