The Federal Communication Commission’s search for a fair "Net Neutrality” solution seems straightforward enough: Ensure that the Internet remains open and free, with no restrictions on access or service for businesses or consumers.
Since the release of the FCC’s latest proposal on May 15, though, the issue appears to be anything but simple. While virtually everyone who would be affected is pointing out flaws in the FCC’s plan, there is much disagreement about exactly what those flaws are.
The FCC proposal is far from final. It merely kicked off a lengthy period for public feedback, and comments can be submitted online at www.fcc.gov/comments.
One major source of contention is the concern that internet providers could potentially create a "fast lane” for companies who are willing to pay a premium. Critics say that Netflix could theoretically pay extra to make sure that its content gets streamed faster than video from competing companies such as Hulu or Amazon. They also maintain that Internet providers could potentially relegate businesses who offer competing products or services to the "slow lane.”
The FCC has been firm in its stance that it will not allow companies to "act in a commercially unreasonable manner … including favoring the traffic from an affiliated entity.” However, a previous legal ruling could potentially prohibit the FCC from forcing Internet providers to treat all traffic equally, leaving a legal loophole for companies to gain faster access. Despite that ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler promises that the commission will consider all requests on a case-by-case basis to make sure that consumers are not negatively affected, even though its ability to do so may be the subject of more legal battles.
Many of the comments to the FCC deal with a potential reclassification of broadband from being an information service to a traditional common-carrier telecom service. This would open the door for more stringent regulatory standards, including interconnection rules and service obligations.
While most observers acknowledge that the days of public-switched telephone networks (PSTN) and POTS are numbered, there is considerable disagreement about whether the FCC should be given increased regulatory power over broadband providers, including potentially prohibiting them from retiring copper networks and facilities.
Opponents of reclassification argue that copper networks are an anachronism in an IP-based competitive landscape, and that increased regulation is both unnecessary and expensive. However, businesses that still depend on wire lines to support customer services are concerned that deregulation could hasten the demise of copper systems before considering any potential adverse impact on consumers and service providers.
Some observers question whether the FCC should even have the authority to decide. Rep. Bob Latte (R-Ohio) has introduced a bill in Congress that would block the agency from reclassifying broadband. Similar legislation is expected in the Senate.
During the public comment period, the FCC is being deluged with input from both sides of the fence. As of June 4, the site had taken more than 45,000 comments, including consumers, businesses, and trade associations. A second round of comments, which will address some of the issues people brought up in the first round, will run until Sept. 10.