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FCC pleases nobody with neutrality compromise

The FCC’s watered-down net neutrality rules, published just before the holiday, have failed to satisfy any parties completely


Published: 6 January, 2011


The FCC’s watered-down net neutrality rules, published just before the holiday, have failed to satisfy any parties completely. Public interest groups claim the laws are too weak but Republican lawmakers are already pledging to repeal them while some telcos may mount lawsuits.

The regulatory agency remained bitterly divided to the last – passing the rules by 3 to 2, on an issue that has proved complex and divisive ever since president Obama came to power two years ago, with a pledge to adopt neutrality policies for the internet. Particularly contentious has been the issue of whether it was right or practical to extend full non-discrimination to the wireless web, given the constrained nature of mobile capacity.

On the wireless side, the cellcos will be barred from blocking services like Google Voice and Skype simply because they compete with their own voice and video offerings, as well as those in which they have an attributable interest. However, unlike wireline broadband carriers, they will not face the same wider ban on unreasonable discrimination in transmitting lawful network traffic.

Wireless operators will also face transparency requirements on network management policies and a basic ‘no-blocking’ rule on lawful content and applications. The latter will not generally apply to app stores. The rules allow for reasonable network management, paving the way for cellcos to use traffic handling tools to set different levels of service or prioritize certain users or content – this was defined as actions that are "appropriate and tailored to a legitimate network management purpose, taking into account network architecture”.

As the National Journal reports, Genachowski said the FCC recognizes there are significant differences between wireless and wired networks, among them the "unique technical issues involving spectrum and mobile networks, the stage and rate of innovation in mobile broadband; and market structure”.

Wireline providers will be allowed to offer "specialized services" apart from the open internet but will have to demonstrate that these do not detract from investment in the open web. They will be barred from unreasonable discrimination against any form of content, but will be free to engage in reasonable network management. “Pay for prioritization" deals, as a general rule, will not satisfy the ban on unreasonable discrimination.

The Republican FCC commissioners, Robert McDowell and Meredith Attwell Baker, voted against the proposal from chairman Julius Genachowski, arguing that it was unnecessary, legally unjustified and politically motivated. The three Democrats – Genachowski, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, supported the plan. Copps had been the deciding factor until the eleventh hour, and – along with Clyburn – was still expressing concerns that the new framework does not go far enough.

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