FCC Launches Net Neutrality Probe

 Agency seeking public comment on allegations that broadband carriers are discriminating.

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) started the clock ticking Jan. 14 on its investigation of allegations that telecom and cable carriers are violating the FCC's network neutrality principles when it comes to text messaging and handling of peer-to-peer (P2P) traffic.

The probe will be the agency's first major test of its network neutrality principles and comes less than a week after FCC Chairman Kevin Martin pledged to investigate complaints recently filed against Verizon Wireless and Comcast.

As part of the investigation, the FCC is seeking public comment on the carriers' conduct. The deadline for filing comments is Feb. 13.

In September, Verizon Wireless was caught blocking text messages from the pro-abortion group NARAL Pro-Choice America. Blaming the initial decision to block the messages on an "incorrect interpretation" of company policy, the nation's second largest wireless carrier quickly reversed its decision.

According to the complaint filed by Public Knowledge and other consumer groups, "The Commission should make it explicit that these discriminatory actions will not be tolerated in the future."

Verizon Wireless maintains that short codes are a form of advertising and that the company reserves the "right to use our own first amendment discretion in deciding who gets to use that very special way of advertising to our subscribers, and not every company gets advertising access to our customers."

Comcast, of Philadelphia, has been at the center of a network neutrality controversy since the Associated Press reported the cable company is "throttling" its broadband network traffic, which involves blocking or slowing the uploading and downloading speeds of lawful applications and content, particularly P2P applications like BitTorrrent.

Comcast admits to delaying "some" Internet traffic in the interests of network management but has repeatedly contended, "Comcast does not, has not, and will not block any websites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services."

"These inquiries will go a long way to setting out a road map for determining who will control the Internet, and whether texting will be seen in the same light as wireless voice services," Public Knowledge President Gigi B. Sohn said in a statement. "We look forward to participating in these dockets, and we anticipate that at the end of the day, consumers will have more control over their Internet and wireless experiences than they do now."

Ben Scott, policy director of Free Press, which was the lead group in filing the Comcast complaint, said in a statement that BitTorrent is the "canary in the coal mine" for broadband carriers seeking to block traffic to consumers.

"Blocking more innovative competitors doesn't constitute reasonable network management," Scott said. "The FCC needs to make it clear to these companies that blocking consumer access to the Internet will not be tolerated. The longer the FCC waits, the more these companies will continue to invest in blocking technologies similar to those used in China to censor the Internet."

In August 2005, the FCC ruled that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice and plug in and run legal devices of their choice. The FCC also said consumers have a right to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers.

Earlier in 2005, the FCC fined Madison River Communications of Mebane, N.C., $15,000 for blocking Voice Over IP (VOIP) calls by competitors to the telecom's own VOIP service.