Connected Research

Union policy research in the 21st century

FCC to announce net neutrality rules

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An article on wired.com heralds new rules on net neutrality in the US due to be announced by the Federal Communications Commission, the US regulatory authority, later today. According to the article, the FCC will start a rule-making process next month, the aim of which will be to turn the FCC’s 2005 ad hoc Broadband Principles, on which it relies for consumer protection, into a more explicit set of rules.

Net neutrality refers to the notion that consumers should be able to access whatever services they like online without interference from their internet service providers: a relatively uncontroversial issue which, however, does rub up against ISP traffic management practices intended to allow them to make optimal use of limited bandwidth (a practice that also occurs in the UK), particularly at peak times.

The existing principles are currently being tested in court by Comcast, which argues that the FCC has no power to cite it for throttling high-bandwidth video applications since the principles have no legal force, while they also pre-date the more widespread use of 3G wireless services.

The debate represents a somewhat misrepresented and rather confusing confrontation between public interest concerns (after all, how can you be against the neutrality of the internet?) and pragmatic realities based around ensuring that the net does not grind to a halt (then again, how can you be against practices which ensure this doesn’t happen?). Ranged on the one side, public interest organisations and awareness groups seeking to preserve the principles of non-discrimination under which the internet was established; on the other, telecoms companies and ISPs representing their side on the issue of the effects of over-regulation on necessary industry investment.

There is clearly a debate to be had here, although it is regrettable that US ISPs have chosen to present their views as a reflection of the impact of regulation. Net neutrality is indeed a desirable principle, but to achieve it against the background of the huge growth in online traffic will require significant investment. That investment (in fibre access networks) is coming – against the background of the recession – but slowly and at a rate that barely allows the industry to keep up with the speed demands of today, let alone ten years into the future. The beneficial contribution of regulation in areas of the economy that have been privatised is that it confirms the public policy approach, delivers certainty and thus assists private companies direct limited investment into areas that serve the public policy interest. The tension is, as always, between the need for that and the market-competing companies who are charged with its delivery and for whom the ultimate goal of investment is somewhat less to do with satisfying matters of public policy but in ensuring it delivers a return for shareholders. Privatised companies and supporters of neo-liberalism are, inevitably, less likely to be supportive of regulation which provides such direction (since anything which interferes with the directional capacity of the market mechanism is, by definition, bad), still less anything which takes away their own decision-making capacity.

In the meantime, the debate in the US has been given added spice by the bill on net neutrality which has been introduced into Congress (registration required; limited viewing time] by Democratic representatives which will seek to ensure that internet service providers cannot block or prioritise internet traffic. An open internet is a key demand of advocacy groups in supporting President Obama’s election campaign and occupies a central part of Obama’s communications policy. Republicans intend to oppose the bill on the grounds of the over-regulation of the industry and have introduced an amendment [registation required; limited viewing time] into the spending bill currently going through the Senate, the effect of which would be to prevent the FCC from using federal funds to advance its internet rules.

Edit: FCC Press Release (including reference to a new specific website on net neutrality), the text of the speech itself, comments by other members of the Commission available at the the FCC website. totaltele.com has also produced a round-up of comments from industry observers [registration required; limited viewing time].

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Written by Calvin

21/09/2009 at 11:35 am

One Response

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  1. I’m not sure if you’ve seen this yet, but Comcast’s executive vice president, David Cohen, responded to the FCC chairman today in Comcast’s blog

    Simon Owens

    21/09/2009 at 8:42 pm


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