FCC Chair Backs Network Neutrality; Data Transparency

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been a busy beaver as of late; we've previously discussed his thoughts on the importance of the Internet and the FCC's request for comments on how its Internet development funds should be allocated and used. The FCC chair spoke at the Brookings Institute in Washington today; his speech emphasized the FCC's support for network neutrality.

If you aren't familiar with the arguments, or haven't paid attention, the question of net neutrality has been percolating for years, at a steadily increasing rate. The question at the heart of the debate is simple—should all Internet traffic be treated equally? Telcos and ISPs generally argue that it shouldn't; Comcast has particularly come under fire for stealthily throttling P2P traffic. ISPs against a neutral network have tended to argue that packet shaping and bandwidth throttling would allow them to improve customers' quality of service. This claim has been met with scorn on multiple fronts; there's a general concern that ISPs could use their network control to create artificial scarcity or low-speed connections. In a tiered network, popular websites might end up treated somewhat like cable TV—basic service is one price, but if you want premium (read: unthrottled) access to YouTube, that's an extra quarter a month. Similarly, customers would be able to play online games with a standard package, but if you want to see your ping times below 250, better be prepared to pony up.

The FCC chairman's plan is to expand the organization's mandate. Currently, the FCC is charged with ensuring that consumers have access to lawful Internet content, are free to run applications and use services, choose the legal method by which they will connect, and are entitled to competition among network providers. Genachowski would add two additional charges to this list: nondiscrimination and transparency. Nondiscrimination is self-explanatory—ISPs would be forbidden from throttling connections based on data type. The transparency rule would require ISPs to explain and detail their network management principles to potential subscribers. That's a far cry from the modern system, where EULAs are subject to change without notice, and stipulations (if mentioned at all) are buried 60 pages deep.

Genachowski's address is best understood within what is, apparently, the framework of a new government mandate. When the FCC chairman stated his belief that the Internet was the 21st century's equivalent to the highway system, his remarks were taken relatively lightly. Within the last two months, the Federal Communications Commission has announced that it intends to build a comprehensive map of broadband availability within the United States, laid the smack down on Comcast, argued with AT&T over whether or not gaming is a basic broadband need—all with the goal of creating a universal broadband policy.

Thus far, even the ISP responses to Genachowski's speech have been mild, but many of the companies who have phoned in their comments are drawing a line between the FCC chairperson's speech as it might apply to wired networks vs. wireless ones. That's a potentially meaningful distinction—should ISPs have more freedom to control what's flowing through the air when available bandwidth is far more restricted? The FCC may or may not discuss the wireless angle; it's possible that the areas of the US that are poorly served by broadband options at the moment aren't very wireless-friendly. Whether the commission directly takes up the issue or rolls it into the question of network neutrality as a whole, the principles at stake will literally effect the development and provisioning of Internet access for years—even decades—to come.