FCC Chief to Propose New Rules for How Firms Control Internet Traffic

Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to call for expanded rules for how operators like AT& T, Verizon and Comcast control traffic on their networks.
Chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to call for expanded rules for how operators like AT& T, Verizon and Comcast control traffic on their networks. (By Marcus Yam -- The Washington Post)
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By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 19, 2009

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission plans to propose rules Monday that would prevent telecommunications, cable and wireless companies from blocking or slowing Internet traffic related to specific applications or services, according to sources at the agency.

Julius Genachowski will discuss the rules during a keynote speech at the Brookings Institution, the sources said Friday. He isn't expected to drill into many details, but the proposal is expected to call for expanded guidelines on how operators like AT&T, Verizon and Comcast control traffic on their networks. One proposed rule would prevent them from discriminating, or act as gatekeepers, of legal Web content and applications.

It would be the first bold move by Genachowski, who served as President Obama's technology adviser during the campaign and transition. The president has put broadband access for all Americans and "net neutrality" -- the idea that all legal content and services over the Web should be freely accessed -- at the center of his technology agenda.

The new FCC rule could upset wireless, telecom and cable operators who have fought regulations that would give them less control over the traffic that runs on their networks. They argue that they need the flexibility to manage traffic to ensure applications don't take up too much bandwidth and slow access to the Web for some users.

"We are concerned about the unintended consequences that net neutrality regulation would have on investments from the very industry that's helping to drive the U.S. economy," said Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs at CTIA, a wireless trade group.

The proposal also calls for a review of network management practices across all communications platforms, including wireless networks, which have come under fire for allegedly blocking voice services that compete with their offerings. The sources describing the rules did so on the condition of anonymity because they did not want to preempt the chairman's announcement.

The guidelines in place now, known as "principles" by the FCC, have been criticized by application developers like Google and public interest groups for not going far enough to clarify what is defined as discriminatory behavior. Some would like the FCC to codify the rules so they are more readily enforceable.

Comcast is fighting in federal court an FCC ruling that it violated the principles by blocking a video application last year. AT&T and Verizon have said existing rules are sufficient, but they wouldn't fight an additional principle on discrimination.

The FCC is taking a broad look at technology's gatekeepers.

The FCC asked AT&T, Apple and Google to respond to questions about allegations that Apple rejected Google's voice service for the popular iPhone. In correspondence released Friday, Google said Apple also rejected its mapping application. Apple denies it rejected the voice application, saying it is still evaluating whether to permit it on the iPhone. And it is unclear whether the FCC can regulate manufacturers of wireless phones.

Consumer interest groups have pushed for new rules, and key lawmakers Thursday ratcheted up the debate when Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.), chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee said he would co-author a net neutrality bill with Reps. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) and Anna G. Eshoo (D-Calif.).

"We are confident that net neutrality rules will not hamper investment, as some critics have charged," said Gigi Sohn, executive director of consumer interest group Public Knowledge. "Rather, as in the past, they will encourage investment in the kinds of innovation and technology that will help move our economy forward."

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