FCC Chair Hints He’ll Open the Can of Worms
by Michael Cain
A couple of weeks ago I wrote a post about the Congressional Republicans’ network neutrality bill. Last week the chairman of the FCC wrote a column in Wired outlining what he will put in a proposed new rule for internet access service to be distributed to the Committee later this month. Since I believe that the internet is the fundamental change in communications that happened during my career in the field, and is likely to be the fundamental change in the field in my lifetime, I couldn’t resist writing a short critique of the outline. The short version of my conclusion on the Congressional bill was that it is good enough for now since it enforces network neutrality immediately and it doesn’t open the huge can of worms that full reclassification of internet access will. Short version of the chairman’s proposal: reclassification and an attempt to deal with some of the worms. Here are the main points, along with brief comments on each.
Strong network neutrality will be enforced. Chairman Wheeler’s proposal will ban paid prioritization and blocking or throttling of lawful content and services. This is absolutely the right thing to do, because internet innovation has always been done by people writing software that runs on devices connected to a content-neutral network. The correct answer to congestion in IP networks is always to provide more bandwidth, not to attempt negotiation of priority service across an unknown number of intermediate networks (some of which may not support priority anyway), and especially not to impose arbitrary traffic-shaping rules.
The new rules will apply to mobile as well as wired providers. A good choice, I think. Another strength of IP as a network protocol is that other than as a matter of purely local concern it’s independent of the underlying transport mechanism. We used to joke that it you didn’t mind the low speeds, it ought to be possible to implement IP carried on carpet static. If internet access is a communications service, then there should be a broad set of rules that apply to it that are independent of the underlying transport.
No last mile unbundling. This one is simply a matter of accepting reality. Mobile providers paid large sums of money for exclusive use of limited radio frequencies. Historical rules regarding the frequencies on which over-the-air and cable television must operate make upstream bandwidth in the cable companies’ fiber-coax networks a scarce commodity that is difficult to share. Google Fiber and municipalities will be less willing to build new distribution networks if they must make them available to other providers. Expect a hugeamount of difficulty in deciding what to do about legacy DSL over the phone company’s loops.
No rate regulation or tariffs. I’m torn about this one as an absolute. I would like to believe that market pressures will ensure that poor areas will get a reasonable minimum level of service at prices people can afford. The no-unbundling is going to limit the number of network providers, though, so I’m not entirely convinced that things will work out that way. One question raised by a no-tariff rule would be how to keep providers from changing service terms whenever they want: “I’m sorry, your plan has been discontinued, you’ll need the shiny new plan with different data caps and speeds and prices.”
Assuming that this is an accurate description of the rule the Chairman actually introduces, and that the Republican bill dies in either a Senate filibuster or by the President’s veto, what happens? First, I feel comfortable in predicting that net neutrality gets pushed at least two years into the future while the FCC goes through its process and multiple court cases are resolved. Possibly longer, since some of the plaintiffs have deep pockets and things will go all the way to the Supreme Court at least once. Second, I’ll predict that there will be at least one “gotcha” that comes out of the proceedings and court cases that no one is talking about. I’m speculating, but I would not be surprised if all of those clauses in current service contracts about “can’t operate servers” simply go away. As a communications service, I expect internet access to mean that I get a static public address good for as long as I continue to buy the service and that I can accept “incoming” connections as well as originate outgoing ones if I want to.
[About the image… The background is a partial map of the connectivity of the internet’s class C addresses, from Wikimedia Commons, courtesy of Matt Britt.]