After months of debate over "net neutrality," the Federal Communications Commission on Dec. 21 approved enforceable rules preventing broadband companies from giving preferential treatment to various traffic on the Internet or discriminating against rivals' content and services. The rules vary, however, in regard to broadband providers and wireless carriers.
The FCC, in a statement, said it had "acted to preserve the Internet as an open network enabling consumer choice, freedom of expression, user control, competition and the freedom to innovate."
A pet project of FCC Chariman Julius Genachowski, the highly contested vote passed 3-2, with the FCC's three Democrats voting in favor of it and its two Republicans opposing it.
"As we stand here now, the freedom and openness of the Internet are unprotected. No rules on the books to protect basic Internet values," Genachowski said in his own statement. "No process for monitoring Internet openness as technology and business models evolve. No recourse for innovators, consumers, or speakers harmed by improper practices. And no predictability for Internet service providers, so that they can effectively manage and invest in broadband networks."
The vote, he added, changes all of this.
The new rules require broadband providers to allow subscribers to access all legal online content, but gives them the ability to manage data that could create network congestion and unwanted traffic, as long as they disclose these practices.
Wireless providers are also required to allow subscribers access to all Web sites and competing applications, such as VOIP (voice over IP) calling services, and to likewise disclose their network management practices. But more leeway is given to wireless companies, with the commission's adopted Report and Order stating that "mobile broadband presents special considerations that suggest differences in how and when open Internet protections should apply."
It goes on to say that most consumers have more choices for mobile broadband than fixed broadband, that mobile broadband speeds, capacity and penetration are typically lower than for fixed services, and that mobile networks face operational constraints that fixed networks do not. This puts greater pressure, it adds, on what constitutes "reasonable network management" for mobile providers - which it defines as including "appropriate and tailored" practices such as ensuring network security and integrity, addressing traffic unwanted by users and reducing or mitigating the effects of congestion on the network.
"Further, we recognize that there have been meaningful recent moves toward openness, including the introduction of open operating systems like Android. In addition, we anticipate soon seeing the effects on the market of the openness conditions we imposed on mobile providers that operate on upper 700 MHz C-Block spectrum, which includes Verizon Wireless, one of the largest mobile wireless carriers in the U.S.," the FCC wrote in the Report and Order. "In light of these considerations, we conclude it is appropriate to take measured steps at this time to protect the openness of the Internet when accessed through mobile broadband."
Not everyone is convinced the controversial rules will work. Charles King, an analyst with Pund-IT Research, described the new rules as basically allowing the wireless carriers to police themselves without a great deal of oversight from any official agency. He would have found it more palatable, he told eWEEK, had the FCC taken a harder line with the wireless carriers.
Republicans have vowed to block the new legislation, which they say may discourage phone and cable companies from upgrading their networks and receiving strong returns on their investment, the Associated Press reported, adding that Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the commision, predicts that the FCC will "face court challenges to its regulatory authority."