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FCC Begins March Toward Net Neutrality

Net Neutrality
WASHINGTON -- The Federal Communications Commission this morning voted to initiate a rule-making process to establish firm Net neutrality rules in a regulatory framework that would bar Internet service providers from discriminating against lawful content on their networks.

"The Internet is and has been an open platform and it is that openness -- and the extraordinary benefits it has brought for our country -- that we seek to preserve through the proceeding we launch today," FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said at this morning's meeting.

Today's action sets in motion two processes. One would codify the Internet principles the FCC adopted in a policy statement in 2005 as formal rules, which would aim to remove some of the uncertainty about the commission's statutory authority to enforce them.

Second, the commission would add two new rules to the principles in its policy statement. The non-discriminatory rule would require ISPs to treat all lawful applications and content with equal priority. The sixth rule would focus on transparency, mandating that ISPs are forthright with their customers

The formal rule-making notice, which has been circulated internally at the commission, will likely be released to the public later this evening or tomorrow, much faster than previous FCC actions.

In another departure, the rule-making notice released to the public will contain some of the text of the draft rules. Previous commission rule-making processes have not taken the seemingly intuitive step of including draft language, which has contributed to the criticism of the commission for operating in a climate of secrecy. The run-up to today's meeting was marked by an intense and often bitter lobbying and public-relations campaign on both sides of the Net neutrality debate. But in practice, today's action only initiates a rule-making process, which entails a lengthy process of soliciting public comments on how the final rules should be written.

"I do not share the majority's view that the Internet is showing breaks and cracks," said Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell, adding that he questioned the wisdom of government intervention in the Internet, as well as the statutory authority of the commission to establish binding rules for ISPs. "Nonetheless it's important for everyone to remember that today the commission is starting a process, not ending one," he said.

McDowell and fellow Republican Meredith Baker cast votes of partial dissent, citing an absence of compelling evidence that the market was suffering from a lack of regulation, as well as the uncertainty over the FCC's legal authority.

At the same time, both Republicans expressed support for the fact-gathering process that the action will initiate through the lengthy public comment period.

The commission set a deadline of Jan. 14 for preliminary comments, and March 5 for reply comments. The final rules are likely to be considered in the spring.

"An open Internet deserves an open process," Genachowski said.

To the great dismay of many in the wireless industry, the rules the Net neutrality rules the FCC is proposing would also apply to mobile broadband networks.

"It doesn't make sense to have one Internet when your laptop ins plugged into a wall and another when accessing the Internet through a wireless modem," Genachowski said. "At the same time, wireless networks are different from wireless networks," he added, noting the rule-making notice allows considerable latitude in how wireless should be treated.

[cob:Special_Report]In addition to the comment period, the FCC said it will launch a "technical advisory process" to canvas network engineers and others to ensure that the definition of some of the slippery terms that will have to be written into the rules, such as reasonable network management.

Julius Knapp, chief of the FCC's Office of Engineering and Technology, promised an "inclusive, open and transparent process for obtaining the best technical advice."

"We will fully explore technical issues such as what constitutes reasonable network management practices," Knapp said.

Net neutrality is a well-worn issue at the commission. In various proceedings touching on the open Internet the commission has held since 2005, it has amassed more than 100,000 pages of input from roughly 40,000 submissions.

Much of the Net neutrality debate has turned on the issue of innovation. Advocates have argued that allowing ISPs to prioritize specific traffic will undermine innovation in applications and services, a sector often referred to as the "edge of the network."

Conversely, ISPs and others have warned that a rigid regulatory framework about what network operators can and cannot do would stifle the sort of innovation that could lead to novel ways of managing traffic without harming consumers or content providers.

Genachowski called that distinction a "false choice."

"Our rules can and must promote investment and innovation throughout the Internet ecosystem," he said.