Mobile Net Neutrality Moves to Policy Forefront
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to expand and codify the FCC's four network neutrality principles and, to the utter horror of wireless carriers, make them apply to the mobile Internet. It all adds up to one of the greatest policy battles at the FCC in years.
The other shoe fell this week for mobile carriers when Federal
Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski said his agency would
consider extending network neutrality rules to the mobile Internet. The first shoe
fell when Barack Obama won the presidency.
Obama championed network neutrality during his campaign for the White House as part of his telecommunications policy written by Genachowski. As Steve Largent, the president and CEO of the mobile carriers' principal trade association, CTIA, said earlier this month, "We knew they'd be looking into everybody's business."
The FCC's current legally dubious network neutrality "principles" apply only to wireline carriers and require carriers to not block legal Internet content and to allow consumers to connect the legal devices of their choice to the network. Genachowski wants to change the principles to enforceable rules and add two more for good measure: prohibiting discrimination in handling Internet traffic and carrier transparency about how a carrier manages its traffic.
And-to the utter horror of wireless carriers-Genachowski wants the rules to also apply to the mobile Internet.
"Even though each form of Internet access has unique technical characteristics, they all are different roads to the same place. It is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it," he said. "The principles I've been speaking about apply to the Internet however accessed, and I will ask my fellow commissioners to join me in confirming this."
Which two of them immediately did, with FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn issuing statements of full support, giving Genachowski the majority he needs to move forward with his new rules. The two Republicans on the FCC's five-member commission, it should be noted, opposed Genachowski's proposal.
"Although we have not been given any draft or summary of proposed net neutrality rules, it is clear from the Chairman's statements that they will be monumental in their scope. In the meantime, we are concerned that both factual and legal conclusions may have been drawn before the process has begun," Republicans Robert McDowell and Meredith Atwell Baker said in a statement. "At the outset, however, this dramatic proposal to grow government's involvement in Internet governance and management would appear to be a reversal of decades of precedent."
Wireless carriers were less restrained in blasting Genachowski's plan.
"We are concerned ... that the FCC appears ready to extend the entire array of net neutrality requirements to what is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in America: wireless services," said Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior vice president of external and legislative affairs.
David Young, Verizon's vice president of regulatory affairs, added, "Innovation should not be hampered by regulation. On a wireline broadband network, you know where your customer is. So you can build capacity to handle the peak demands. But on a wireless network, you have a crowd converge on a site that suddenly has 10 times or 100 times the users competing for the same resources."
Of course, the CTIA also weighed in.
"Unlike the other platforms that would be subject to the rules, the wireless industry is extremely competitive, extremely innovative and extremely personal," Chris Guttman-McCabe, vice president of regulatory affairs for CTIA, said in a statement. "How do the rules apply to the single-purpose Amazon Kindle? How does it apply to Google's efforts to cache content to provide a better consumer experience? How about the efforts from Apple and Android, BlackBerry and Nokia, Firefly and others to differentiate the products and services they develop for consumers? Should all product and service offerings be the same?"
All of which adds up to one of greatest policy battle royales at the FCC in years. By the time the FCC introduces the rules for public comment and then more time for comments on the original comments, the FCC is likely to be voting on Genachowski's proposal about the same time it is issuing its national broadband plan in February. It's not a leap of faith to imagine the FCC presenting the broadband plan to Congress with stronger network neutrality rules underpinning the whole plan.
The carriers, both wired and wireless, meanwhile, are mounting campaigns to beat back the regulators at their doors. As one network neutrality supporter said this week: "You just know the carriers are already sharply poking their legal hounds from hell in the ribs and telling them to go after this proposal at all costs."