FCC Endorses Network Neutrality

By Cecilia Kang
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 22, 2009

The government would play a far more aggressive role in policing the public's unfettered access to Internet services and content under a proposal offered Monday by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski.

The agency would be the "smart cop on the beat," Genachowski said in a speech, outlining a plan to prohibit Internet service providers from blocking or slowing certain technologies and content on their networks. The chairman proposed that firms be required to make public the steps they are taking to control Web traffic.

The proposal raised concerns among several providers, which said the regulation could hurt their business by limiting their ability to manage their networks.

Some of the loudest protests came from wireless service providers, including telecommunications giant AT&T. They argued that "net neutrality" rules should exclude the booming cellphone industry, where competition among carriers is healthy and resources are limited.

U.S. wireless networks are "facing incredible bandwidth strains . . . which require continued private investment at very high levels and pro-active network management to ensure service quality for 270 million customers," Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior vice president of external and legislative affairs, said in a statement.

Others worried how the government would decide what offerings are acceptable.

"Should all product and service offerings be the same?" asked Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for the wireless association CTIA.

Genachowski said the FCC would weigh such concerns as the agency goes about drawing up its regulatory principles.

"This is the announcement of the beginning of a process," said Colin Crowell, a senior adviser to Genachowski. "The chairman said two things with respect to mobile; first, that the principles ought to apply to all platforms, in order to be technologically neutral. The principals ideally apply in a technologically neutral way so that your expectations as a consumer and entrepreneur don't change as you choose different ways of reaching the Internet. Second, he indicated that how, to what extent, and when the principles will apply to different platforms is what the process will determine."

Genachowski said he suggested that the FCC should evaluate alleged net neutrality violations on a case-by-case basis.

"This approach, within the framework I am proposing today, will allow the commission to make reasoned, fact-based determinations based on the Internet before it -- not based on the Internet of years past or guesses about how the Internet will evolve," Genachowski said in his speech, delivered at the Brookings Institution.

He said the proposed principles won't prevent broadband providers from "reasonably managing their networks." But defining what is reasonable management is where debate by carriers of all sizes and regulators will go forward, telecommunications specialists said.

David Young, vice president of regulatory affairs for Verizon Communications, questioned the need for new regulations because he said there hasn't been much proof that consumers or business have not been able to get the Web content and services they want.

"I'm pleased to hear that the chairman intends to do only as much as needed and no more . . . We need to see what are the problems that need to be fixed and what are the examples that require a dramatic change," Young said.

Genachowski said examples of discriminatory behavior -- such as Comcast's move to allegedly block peer-to-peer service BitTorrent on its network -- show that rules need to be in place to stop such practices and that there needs to be greater transparency by network operators for entrepreneurs and consumers of the Web to ensure that they are able to build Internet businesses and get the services they expect from their providers.

"This is not about protecting the Internet against imaginary dangers. We're seeing the breaks and cracks emerge, and they threaten to change the Internet's fundamental architecture of openness," Genachowski said.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company