Friday, June 11, 2010

US broadband debate hots up


The BBC report on FCC Commissioner Michael J.Copps' speech yesterday, as discussed previously on this blog. But the article glosses over some important details that are at the heart of the current debate:
"Plans for the future of the internet in the US are "under seige" by powerful interests, warns the Federal Communications Commission. The warning was given by Commissioner Michael Copps as the agency prepares for a vote on its plans for the development of broadband in the US. The plan followed a court decision that the FCC had no authority to stop ISPs slowing traffic to some users The ruling was a blow to a central tenet of the agency's broadband plan. That plan aims to to provide every American in the country with high speed internet access by 2020. Enshrined in the FCC plan is strong backing for so-called "net neutrality" principles. This means that all web data is treated equally and stops ISPs favouring some traffic in preference to others."
The FCC's intentions are rather more involved than simply stopping ISPs from favouring traffic. Their National Broadband Plan included details of the FCC's notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) on preserving the open Internet. The six principles at the heart of the FCC's proposals are set out on page 58 of the plan:
  1. Content. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not prevent any of its users from sending or receiving the lawful content of the user’s choice over the Internet.
  2. Applications and services. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not prevent any of its users from running the lawful applications or using the lawful services of the user’s choice.
  3. Devices. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not prevent any of its users from connecting to and using on its network the user’s choice of lawful devices that do not harm the network.
  4. Competitive Options. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service may not deprive any of its users of the user’s entitlement to competition among network providers, application providers, service providers and content providers.
  5. Nondiscrimination. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service must treat lawful content, applications and services in a nondiscriminatory manner.
  6. Transparency. Subject to reasonable network management, a provider of broadband Internet access service must disclose such information concerning network management and other practices as is reasonably required for users and content, application and service providers to enjoy the protections specified in this part.
...all of which is rather more involved and complex than simply stopping ISPs "favouring some traffic in preference to others". The phrase "subject to reasonable network management" features in all six principles and was defined by the FCC in the same NPRM as follows:
"Reasonable network management consists of: (a) reasonable practices employed by a provider of broadband Internet access service to (i) reduce or mitigate the effects of congestion on its network or to address quality-of-service concerns; (ii) address traffic that is unwanted by users or harmful; (iii) prevent the transfer of unlawful content; or (iv) prevent the unlawful transfer of content; and (b) other reasonable network management practices."
It's also timely to revisit the detail of the FCC's original dispute with Comcast here, as described in this previous post. In a nutshell, the approach taken by Comcast was much more significant and detrimental to users than simply slowing traffic: the company was blocking BitTorrent traffic completely in a number of instances, without disclosing the practice to customers. The FCC understandably did not consider this to be "reasonable network management" and I agree. The subsequent court ruling was made on the basis of the FCC's status and its ensuing ability (or, rather lack of it) to enforce its rulings so didn't take Comcast's actions into account.

Which provides an interesting counterpoint to this speech yesterday by another FCC Commissioner, Meredith Attwell Baker, setting out a very different view to her colleague Michael Copps. Baker argues strongly that broadband should not be reclassified and that current classification has served consumers well:
"We must recognize the basic teachings of economics and financial markets, the core tenants of engineering, the time-tested proposition that competitive markets protect consumers better than prescriptive government regulation, and some plain old common sense: if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it. And, our Title I regime for broadband is certainly not broken."
...but competitive markets only protect consumers better if companies play fair, and I don't think anyone could argue that what Comcast did was in the best interests of its customers. However, whether the actions of a single (albeit large) broadband provider are sufficient cause to significantly amend the regulatory framework also needs to be considered. Baker welcomed the launch this week of the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group, also discussed on the Google Public Policy Blog, and closed with these remarks:
"In the end, it would be a disservice to consumers and the entire Internet ecosystem for us to allow this Title II debate to devolve into a take-it-or-leave-it reclassification fight. The stakes are too high, and the opportunity too great to lose years in Title II litigation limbo. I urge all parties in this debate to disagree without being disagreeable, and maintain the ability to work together on issues of true consensus. I hope that a future regulatory approach based on Title I gets a fair hearing, and I ask all of you in this room to flesh out how we can proceed after Comcast without reclassification."
May you live in interesting times, as the saying goes.

No comments:

Post a Comment