Civility Creeping Into Net Neutrality Debate?

ARLINGTON, Va. — For the last several years, Net neutrality has been known to many as the third rail of telecom policy.

The arguments, often less than civil, have taken on an almost religious fervor.

But in a panel discussion this morning at Pike and Fischer’s Broadband Policy Summit, advocates on both sides of the issue agreed that the Net neutrality debate has evolved into a more sophisticated and respectful dialogue.

“I think we are moving past the shouting match,” said Harold Feld, legal director at Public Knowledge, a group that has advocated for Net neutrality.

Jim Cicconi, AT&T’s (NYSE: T) top lobbyist, talked of building a bridge between the Web companies in Silicon Valley and the cable and telecom providers that operate the infrastructure needed to deliver their content.

But make no mistake, behind this newfound civility, the stakeholders have very different policy prescriptions.

Part of the trouble comes from a question of definition. Net neutrality means different things to different people. The conventional definition refers to ISPs not slowing or blocking between certain types of traffic on their networks. But some have broadened the issue to include pricing as ISPs have begun to experiment with new models like bandwidth caps and metered usage.

Add to that the constellation of issues emerging in the wireless sector — handset exclusivity deals, open access network provisions, special access pricing — and the term “Net neutrality” gets heavy with baggage.

But peel back those complexities, and the telecom side of the issue has a familiar ring.

“The biggest thing facing those of us who are investing in the broadband network side of this is the challenge posed by increased usage,” Cicconi said

The primary driver of that traffic spike has been the surging popularity of online video. “I think it’s faster than anyone predicted,” he said.

“You can’t build your way out of it. You have to be able to manage your network intelligently.”

It’s hard to find a voice in the debate that argues that ISPs should be allowed to manage their own networks. But the descriptive that typically precedes network management, “reasonable,” is usually where the battle lines are drawn.

Cicconi spoke for the cable and telecom industries when he said that Congress and the Federal Communications Commission should resist the calls to write a law or make a rule that would try to establish a one-size-fits-all regulatory framework to address “concerns about potential abuses and hypothetical problems.” Instead, he’d like to see the current case-by-case approach that led to the FCC’s rebuke of Comcast last August for secretly throttling peer-to-peer traffic from BitTorrent.

“We found that the system works pretty well,” Cicconi said.

In mild agreement was Amazon (NASDAQ: AMZN) Vice President Paul Misener, saying, “I think we’re not in such a bad spot. But I also don’t think that should be the standard by which we should measure success.”

Amazon, like Google (NASDAQ: GOOG), eBay (NASDAQ: EBAY) and many other Web firms, has long advocated for tougher Net neutrality protections. The concern becomes more sharper when Web companies and telecom providers begin to offer competing services, such as streaming video.

President Obama has repeatedly spoken in support of Net neutrality, and with Democrats holding solid majorities in both chambers of Congress, supporters of the principle
they have their best chance yet to see legislation pass.

Separately, Michael Copps, the acting chairman of the FCC, has said he would like to see the agency add a fifth principle to its 2005 broadband policy statement that would explicitly mandate non-discriminatory network management.

Incoming chairman Julius Genachowski, whose confirmation by the full Senate is all but a formality, has also expressed support for Net neutrality.

Cicconi said he could envision a fifth principle that would be satisfactory to AT&T, but he said the current statement, which says that consumers should be able “to access the lawful content of their choice” and “run applications and services of their choice,” already gives the FCC all the authority it needs to enforce non-discrimination on a case-by-case basis.

“We think the FCC’s got the authority,” Cicconi said. “AT&T has indicated our commitment to abide by the broadband policy statement.”

It was those principles that the FCC said Comcast violated in August.

The Comcast decision casts a long shadow over the Net neutrality debate, both for setting a precedent and for the legal challenge that followed. Shortly after the FCC handed down its ruling, Comcast filed a lawsuit claiming the agency didn’t have the authority in a case that it pending in a federal appeals court.

That outcome of that case could shift the political climate. If the judge sides with Comcast and overturns the FCC’s ruling, that could build momentum in Congress for legislation on the issue.

Early in the Congress, several lawmakers indicated their plans to get behind a Net neutrality bill, but so far none has materialized.

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