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FCC appears to delay Net neutrality rules

Instead of announcing a vote on new broadband regulations, federal regulators ask for "further inquiry" into whether Net neutrality should apply to wireless networks.

In a blow to Net neutrality advocates, who were hoping for sweeping new rules as early as this month, federal regulators suggested Wednesday that they're delaying any action in the near future.

The Federal Communications Commission said it will be conducting a "further inquiry" into the details of broadband regulation, including whether wireless networks should be exempted from strict Net neutrality rules, a concept that Google and Verizon recently endorsed. (Here's some background from last year on wireless regulation.)

Wireless signals

Technological developments, including per-usage plans from AT&T Mobility and Leap Wireless, have changed the wireless marketplace so much that more research is needed, the FCC said (PDF). The agency asked: "To what extent should mobile wireless providers be permitted to prevent or restrict the distribution or use of types of applications that may intensively use network capacity?"

The Google-Verizon announcement last month said that they would "not now apply most of the wireline principles to wireless," except a requirement that wireless providers disclose their network management practices.

It should come as no surprise that there was disappointment among advocacy groups hoping the FCC would announce Thursday that it was meeting later this month to vote to regulate broadband providers.

Matt Wood, associate director of the Media Access Project, said the FCC already had enough information to slap AT&T, Verizon, and other providers with anti-discrimination regulations. "Public interest groups, companies, trade associations, and other commenters on all sides of the issue have provided great detail on these topics" already, Wood said.

Public Knowledge said that because these topics were already "extensively explored in not one, but two proceedings" before the FCC, there was no reason to delay.

Complicating the debate over Net neutrality are technological differences in wireless and wired networks. As many irritated iPhone users can attest, high-volume users can readily clog wireless networks, which have far more capacity constraints than cable or DSL links.

Ever since a federal appeals court in April unanimously slapped down the FCC's attempt to punish Comcast for throttling some BitTorrent transfers, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been buffeted by calls to come up with some way to levy such regulations on broadband providers, followed by a political push to maintain the current status quo. A majority of members of Congress have said that they oppose new regulations--they say they're worried about American jobs as much as their own policy-setting prerogatives--but Genachowski has pledged to find some way to proceed.

"We are happy the chairman and the commissioners realize that wireless is different," CTIA-The Wireless Association said Wednesday.

And Jim Cicconi, a senior vice president for AT&T, added: "We've worked hard to find common ground on these difficult issues and feel good progress has been made. In particular, we feel a path can be found that addresses concerns about Internet openness, while at the same time preserving jobs and protecting needed investment."

The slow pace of the federal regulatory process, coupled with a desire for certainty on what rules will apply, has led usual rivals including AT&T, Google, Comcast, Verizon, and Microsoft to form a technical advisory group that hopes to draft suggested rules that are politically palatable.

Public comments can be submitted on the FCC's Web site under these proceedings: GN Docket No. 09-191 and WC Docket No. 07-52. The other topic the agency asked for comments on is "specialized services," meaning non-Internet services that flow across the same last mile facilities used for broadband connectivity.