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Telecom Experts Worry About Net Neutrality Rules

Net neutrality rules proposed by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission could slow down improvements to the nation's broadband networks, some telecom experts said Thursday.

But others speaking at an Institute for Policy Innovation (IPI) forum in Washington, D.C., said they believed the FCC could find the right balance between protecting broadband consumers and allowing new telecom business models, while allowing broadband providers to manage their networks against congestion, malware and illegally shared copyright materials.

The proposed rules would prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing legal Web content and services, while allowing them to engage in "reasonable" network management. Some speakers at the event worried about how the FCC will define reasonable network management, with no definition in a notice of proposed rulemaking released by the FCC in October.

The FCC's definition of reasonable network management is likely to be challenged in court, and that uncertainty could slow down network investment, said Robert McDowell, a Republican member of the FCC. "'Reasonable' will be litigated," he said. "At the end of the day, do we want lawyers running the Internet?"

With new rules potentially on the way, broadband providers may be reluctant to invest new money in their networks, added Michael McCurry, co-chairman of Arts+Labs, an Internet content advocacy group.

"Unless we're going to go full-scale and create a new broadband bureau at the FCC and staff it up, I doubt the ability of the regulators to really keep pace with all the things that are transforming the Internet hourly," said McCurry, former spokesman for former U.S. President Bill Clinton.

The Internet remains one of the few "bright spots" in the U.S. economy, added Kyle McSlarrow, president and CEO of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA), a trade group. New regulations for broadband providers come with a "huge risk" of slowing down the broadband sector, he said.

The FCC, with a Democratic majority, seems to be presuming new rules are needed, even though there's little evidence the broadband market is failing, McSlarrow added. "The presumption ought to be reversed," he said. "Unless you can show some demonstrable anticompetitive impact or demonstrable network harm, no one else should be second-guessing how we manage our networks or the services we provide."

While McDowell and McSlarrow questioned the need for net neutrality rules, Paul Misener, vice president for global public policy at Amazon.com, suggested that new rules could give broadband providers some specific guidance on reasonable network management after a period of uncertainty. Since 2005, the FCC has enforced four net neutrality principles on a case-by-case basis.

The FCC can craft net neutrality rules while still allowing broadband providers to manage their networks, Misener said. The FCC should allow network providers to block malware, block the trading of material under copyright, and manage congestion, and the rules should be explicit, he said.

In addition, broadband providers should be able to charge high-bandwidth users more than low-bandwidth users, he said. Network operators should be able to explore new business models, he said.

But Misener questioned whether broadband providers should be able to arbitrarily prioritize some Internet content and applications over others.

"The problem is, that in a limited-resource network, any prioritization of some content necessarily means the deprioritization of other content," he said. "Net neutrality, done right, would be a win-win-win for consumers, for application service providers like Amazon.com, and for the network operators themselves. All three groups would be better off than they are today."

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