Broadband Buildout Nets Neutrality Debate

With Congress seemingly unwilling to pass network neutrality laws, advocates are using President Obama's stimulus package as a new forum for promoting free and open networks. The strings attached to the $7.2 billion for broadband buildouts to underserved and rural areas in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 already require open network provisions, but network neutrality advocates want more.

New money, old debate: Should carriers that take the $7.2 billion allotted in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 for building broadband networks in underserved and rural areas be required to adhere to network neutrality principles?
The stimulus package approved by Congress already requires recipients of the grants bonanza to follow the Federal Communications Commission's legally challenged network neutrality rules. More ominously for the carriers, though, the law empowers the FCC and the NTIA (National Telecommunications and Information Administration) to create additional network neutrality rules for carriers accepting stimulus funds.
"It is not only fitting and proper that we should protect the Internet built with taxpayer dollars, it is essential if we are going to honor the dual goals of economic stimulus and public service required by the law," Free Press Policy Director Ben Scott said March 23. "This is the first opportunity for this administration to set a new high-water mark for consumer protection on the Internet."
Speaking at a round-table conference at the Department of Commerce to hash out the details of the broadband funding, Scott added, "Taxpayers put money into infrastructure only insofar as it serves the public interest. This is not a blank check. We are buying a public service from grant recipients with this investment."
Not so fast, countered carriers.
"The idea that we should lay additional and unknown regulations on top of the task of the people getting this grant money is, I think, troubling at best," said Jonathan Banks of the U.S. Telecom Association, the principal trade association for telecommunications carriers such as Verizon, AT&T and Sprint. Added James Assey of the cable industry's National Cable and Telecommunications Association, "We are going to deter the very people that are best positioned to roll out broadband infrastructure in unserved areas."
In August 2005, the FCC declared 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.
Cable giant Comcast became the first broadband carrier to be caught up in the network neutrality debate in August 2008 when the FCC found Comcast violated the agency's Internet policy by blocking peer-to-peer traffic by BitTorrent. The agency also found that Comcast misled consumers by not properly disclosing its P2P policy. Comcast has appealed the decision, leaving the actual extent of the FCC's authority in question.
When the FCC found Comcast guilty, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps urged the agency to approve a fifth principle of network neutrality: "A clearly stated principle of nondiscrimination would prove the FCC is not having a one-night affair with network neutrality. The nondiscrimination principle would also apply to wireless and wire line to assure all the freedoms of the Internet to everyone."
Copps' suggestion was ignored, and Public Knowledge President Gigi B. Sohn told the Commerce round table that the FCC's network neutrality principles are "insufficient to ensure nondiscriminatory networks, because they do not address cases where a network provider prioritizes or favors certain content, applications and services over others."
The new law allocates $4.7 billion of the funding to the NTIA and the remaining $2.5 billion to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The FCC will work with the NTIA and USDA to develop the open networks provisions attached to the funding.
According to NTIA Associate Administrator Bernadette McGuire-Rivera, the funds will be distributed over three rounds, with the first occurring this spring, followed by a round of funding in the fall and the final round in the spring of 2010. The RUS (Rural Utilities Service) of the USDA will follow the same three-round routine.