FCC Continues to Wrestle With Net Neutrality

CAMBRIDGE, MASS. — Is unregulated broadband network management a necessary evil, or a Pandora’s box brimming with content censorship, excessive bandwidth throttling and a range of discriminatory practices by ISPs?

That is the primary issue facing the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) and players on both sides of the political fence as they seek to find a common ground in the area of Net neutrality, sparring over equal access to the Internet and the right of network operators to “reasonably manage” their network and services.

That debate came to the forefront during a public hearing on broadband network management practices hosted here on Monday by the Harvard Law School.

During the hearing, Net neutrality advocates blasted recent actions by cable ISP Comcast, which they allege engaged in discriminatory broadband throttling activities with BitTorrent.

“Comcast should disclose more information,” said Marvin Ammori, general counsel for Free Press, a Washington, D.C.-based public interest group that filed a complaint against Comcast with the FCC.

“But disclosure isn’t enough,” Ammori said. “Network operators shouldn’t discriminate against anyone.”

Comcast executive vice president David Cohen, the person on the hot seat at the hearing, insisted his company does everything it can to inform people about its policies.

He added that those policies are designed to protect the majority of its subscribers from degraded services created by excessive broadband usage and P2P activities.

“We try to maximize the customer experience by managing the network, but there is nothing wrong with network management,” he said. “Every network must be managed in order for the network to function.”

Bigger stakes

While much of the debate during the hearing centered on Comcast’s activities, both Net neutrality supporters and critics agree that the issue of bandwidth management has far larger implications.

At risk may be the future of the Internet, which some say could hit the bandwidth wall as soon as 2010. Consumers and businesses may also be impacted with higher rates for peak last-mile operational service, lower quality of service and even discriminate denial of Internet services.

[cob:Related_Articles]”The key concern for safeguarding the Internet is a recognition that the nature of the Net is not about the services provided by the carriers, since they provide broadband access and not services,” U.S. Congressman Edward Markey (D-Mass.) said during the hearing.

Markey, who chairs the House Energy and Commerce subcommittee on telecommunications and the Internet, recommended Monday’s public meeting — the first of several planned to keep the public informed and involved in any proposed Internet regulations.

He is also a longtime proponent of Net neutrality, supporting legislation protecting Net neutrality since he does not believe the FCC presently has the power to regulate practices like discriminatory bandwidth distribution.

“We want to look back and be sure this does not become No Country For No Bandwidth,” Markey said, in a nod to the Oscar-winning film. After all, “I could have said, ‘There Will be Blood,'” he quipped during the hearing.

The ostensible purpose of Monday’s meeting, which included representatives from the FCC, ISPs and content distribution and channel providers, was to gather information and public comment on how the FCC might proceed in terms of investigation of Net neutrality violations and potential regulations — at least that’s how FCC Chairman Kevin Martin set the stage.

The tone quickly changed, however, as executives from content service providers, open Internet access groups and even FCC commissioners zeroed in on Comcast and what they claimed is a lack of transparency about the company’s activities.

[cob:Special_Report]”The level of disclosure in industry is unacceptable,” added Timothy Wu, a professor of law at Columbia Law School. “The government needs more involvement in disclosure, just like in the stock market.”

“There is a concern about Internet network management practices and for transparency and equity, said Gilles BianRosa, CEO of Vuze, a video services company that makes heavy use of P2P technology for delivering high-resolution content for such customers as the BBC, Showtime and other broadcast companies.

At the meeting, BianRosa demonstrated how P2P throttling and discriminatory throttling could impact a large chunk of his subscribers and customers.

Vuze has been playing a cat-and-mouse game with network operators to get around what BianRosa termed unreasonable and excessive network management activities. In November, BianRosa officially petitioned the FCC to force operators to clarify network management rules and develop regulations.

But Comcast’s Cohen explained that his company clearly outlines its network management policies on its Web site and details its obligation to “temporarily delay P2P traffic if it has or is projected to have an adverse affect on other users in the network.”

Comcast also has the right to delay P2P sessions during periods of high congestion, he said.

“We are crystal clear in our rules,” he said.

Another point of concern raised during the hearing was how much authority federal regulators could exert over Net neutrality issues.

Part of the reason is that the profile of the Internet and its users has changed dramatically with the rapid emergence of user-generated content and high-definition video and information feeds, they said. Today, it is more of a broadcast medium that touches nearly every business and consumer area than the messaging system of DARPANET some 40 years ago.

Along with that change has come uncertainty over the FCC’s role and how its jurisdiction might apply to ISPs.

Martin, for instance, asked Cohen specifically whether he believes the FCC has the authority to force Comcast to stop blocking or to impose forfeiture or a fine.

In response, Cohen hinted that, like Markey, he doubted the FCC has such authority — although he added that he wasn’t certain.

“Network operators are making choices right now that will determine how consumers will use the Internet now and in the future,” FCC Commissioner Michael Copps said.

“Some choices may be right and some may be wrong,” Copps added. “These are hard and complex questions.”

News Around the Web