FCC wades through Net neutrality comments

Among the hot issues in ongoing debate are whether to apply new rules to wireless and defining reasonable network management, according a sea of FCC filings.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
6 min read

The Federal Communications Commission was flooded Thursday at midnight with filings from technology and communications companies, industry lobbying groups, and consumer advocates putting in their two cents on upcoming Open Internet rules being created by the agency.

Thursday's deadline created a sea of paperwork for FCC officials who are already scrambling to complete a massive report detailing plans for a national broadband policy due to Congress in March. (The deadline has been pushed back from mid-February.)

The comments submitted Friday offered little surprise. Skype, along with consumer advocates Free Press and the Open Internet Coalotion--consisting of several technology companies, such as Amazon, Skype, and Google--are in favor of establishing Net neutrality rules. Most network operators, including AT&T and Comcast, say they support keeping the Net open, but they don't believe rules are necessary. And the CTIA, the industry group representing the wireless industry, says rules are "inappropriate and unnecessary."

Verizon and Google teamed up once again to jointly file comments informing the commission on areas surrounding Net neutrality where they have found "common ground," such as "encouraging investment and innovation of broadband networks" and "providing users with information."

Still, areas of disagreement remain between the phone company and the Internet giant. Google feels that Verizon Wireless and other wireless providers should be subject to new Net neutrality rules, while Verizon and the rest of its industry believes it should not. That said, the companies also said the FCC should examine specific market and technical factors before applying any rules to wireless.

The debate over so-called Net neutrality has been going on for about three years. There is no clear definition of the term Net neutrality, but in general it refers to the concept that Internet users should have unfettered access to content and services. In other words, service providers should not be allowed to either impede or favor access to particular sites or applications, the theory goes.

The discovery in 2008 that the nation's largest cable operator, Comcast, had slowed down certain kinds of peer-to-peer traffic on its network fanned the flames and sparked public outrage over such practices.

But the fight to create new laws or regulation to protect Net neutrality languished after the FCC publicly admonished Comcast for violating its open Internet principles. These principles aren't regulation and the FCC is somewhat powerless in imposing any real punishment for violating the rules. Still, the slap on the wrist coupled with public outcry was enough to get Comcast to change its practices. Comcast is currently appealing the FCC in federal court over this punishment. Early indications from the trial, which is going on right now, show that the judges may side with Comcast in their decision.

In an effort to bolster the FCC's ability to enforce these principles, the commission's Chairman Julius Genachowski proposed in September making the existing principles official regulation. He also proposed adding two more rules to the list of official regulation.

The four principles
The existing principles can be summarized this way: Network operators cannot prevent users from accessing lawful Internet content, applications, and services of their choice, nor can they prohibit users from attaching non-harmful devices to the network.

The first of the two new principles would prevent Internet access providers from discriminating against particular Internet content or applications, while allowing for reasonable network management. The second principle would ensure that Internet access providers are transparent about the network management practices they implement.

For the most part, service providers say they can live with the first four principles as rules. But where they disagree the most is in how the "nondiscrimination" principle would be implemented.

AT&T, in particular, believes this rule is too strict and would prohibit the company from managing its network or hamper its ability to offer new services, such as home telepresence.

"As consumers devour more and more bandwidth, broadband owners need to manage that information flow in ways to ensure the Internet continues to work and doesn't start to look like the Capital Beltway on a Friday afternoon," Bob Quinn, AT&T's vice president-federal regulatory, wrote in a blog post explaining the company's official FCC filing. "One way to do that is to recognize that all bits are not created equal--every new application and piece of content being created does not require the same amount of network resources to function the way their creators intend them to function."

He went on to say that AT&T has been providing quality of service for its business customers for years. And as new bandwidth intensive services like Cisco's Telepresence begin hitting the market, the company will likely have to manage its network to provide these services, too.

"Rules that would ban us from creating, supporting or providing those services would stop innovation in its tracks," he said. "That is why it is so critical to maintain this balance that both preserves openness and encourages companies to invest in infrastructure"

Google, which has been a strong supporter of Net neutrality, believes a strong nondiscrimination principle is needed to ensure competitors' content or applications are not blocked. But it agrees that network operators should be able to manage their networks. And it would like to see a careful definition of what constitutes reasonable network management.

Role of wireless providers
Another bone of contention between the two sides on Net neutrality has to do with applying new rules to wireless. Wireless service providers, such as AT&T and Verizon Wireless, believe that any new rules established by the FCC should not apply to them. They argue that wireless networks are built with limited spectrum resources, and new rules would impair their ability to protect those resources.

CTIA President and CEO Steve Largent said in a letter to the FCC that the agency's proposed rules were "incompatible with wireless broadband." He also said they "are inappropriate for wireless broadband networks and unnecessary to ensure that wireless consumers continue to enjoy the open Internet."

Google and Skype are among two companies that disagree with this assessment. Google said in its filing that any new policy rules that are put in place should apply to wireline and wireless networks.

Skype, a voice over IP provider that relies on an open Internet to offer its services, agrees that it's critical for Net neutrality rules to also apply to wireless networks.

The company said that not applying these rules to wireless would harm innovation by potentially allowing carriers to block services, such as Skype's, which compete with the wireless operators' own services.

Still, Skype said it understands wireless operators' need to provide network management on their networks. But it emphasized that there is no need for wireless operators to block or slow down particular applications without regard to the network capacity to manage their networks.

For example, it said not all video applications, peer-to-peer, or VoIP applications consume the same amount of bandwidth or put the same demands on a network. In fact, Skype said its own proprietary software adapts to network congestion to ensure the quality of its service.

"The commission should reject network management practices that rely broad application descriptions because they do not bear any close relationship to actual demands placed on broadband networks," Skype writes. "Instead, any broadband network management practice that blocks or throttles only third-party applications and not those affiliated with the network operator should be deemed unreasonable per se as they strike at the core of the concern behind the proposed nondiscrimination rules."

Now that all the public comments have been filed, the FCC will sift through the documents and is likely to propose a final set of rules later this year. Rules are expected to pass, given that Democrats, which tend to favor Net neutrality regulation, control the FCC three to two.

But a defeat in the Comcast case that is currently being heard in federal court could curb the FCC's ability to turn these principles into enforceable rules, and new legislation may be needed to provide full protection. So stay tuned, the fight is far from over.