Network-neutrality debate begins in earnest
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski yesterday outlined a proposal for the commission to adopt rules regarding network neutrality on the Internet, a concept that has the source of considerable debate in the communications industry in recent years.
Genachowski’s proposal would have the FCC codify four basic principles that were supported by his predecessors — Republican FCC chairmen Michael Powell and Kevin Martin — as well as two new rules. One would prohibit network operators from providing degrading throughput of traffic based on whether the service was offered by the network operator. The other would require the network operator to let customers know when it has decided to block specific services.
This push for non-discrimination on commercial networks and transparency of network-management practices for are key components for Internet-centric companies like Google and Skype, which have made their case to federal officials that their businesses should not be at the mercy of a giant network operator blocking their services because of a perceived threat to the network operator’s bottom line.
In the past, network operators have fought hard against the notion of net neutrality, noting that there is little incentive to build better networks if a rogue, bandwidth-intensive application or service can bring the network to a crawl. And the idea that these net neutrality notions are being proposed for the more capacity-constrained wireless networks instead of just wired broadband networks is more disconcerting.
“From a commercial operator’s perspective, it is a little scary,” mobile wireless consultant Andrew Seybold said. “There are some land mines here for the wireless community.”
Genachowski made some key statements to address such concerns, noting that operators will have the ability to “reasonably” manage their networks. In addition, it was clear that providing prioritization to public-safety traffic was one example where discrimination would be allowed.
If the rules allow network operators to offer tiers of service based on price and the ability to block applications that are so bandwidth intensive that they damage the network operator’s ability to provide throughout, that would seem to be acceptable — in fact, Verizon agreed to many similar conditions when it bid more than $4 billion to win the 700 MHz C Block spectrum last year.
Of course, the devil will in the details, and there are a lot of gray areas that need to be clarified. For public safety entities using a commercial carrier to supply wireless data, ensuring that any network-neutrality rules allow carriers to effectively manage their networks is critical.