FCC Wants Your Opinion on Proposed "Third Way" for Broadband

The Federal Communications Commission has a fairly straightforward mission. According to its Web site, "The FCC was established by the Communications Act of 1934 and is charged with regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite and cable." Today the FCC is struggling to adapt to the rapidly-changing communications environment, and it is looking for public input to determine the best way to accomplish that.

Congress directed the FCC to come up with a National Broadband Plan, but the FCC has been challenged on whether it has the authority to pursue it.
At some point in the past, the FCC voluntarily deemed Internet service as an "information service" governed by Title I of the Communication Act, rather than a "telecommunications service," which falls under Title II. The logic behind that choice was based on the fact that the ISP was merely providing the connection, or pipe, that content and services were delivered through, but not the actual content or services themselves.

Things have changed. Technology has evolved, the Internet and communications industries have converged, and the regulatory framework governing the industry has to be modified accordingly to ensure that the FCC has the authority to carry out the mission it has been tasked with.

The industry did not seem to question the authority of the FCC to arbitrarily designate Internet service under Title I. But, as it seeks to undo that decision and apply some or all of the Title II rules to broadband providers, the FCC has faced tremendous corporate and political opposition claiming that it has no authority to reclassify broadband service.

FCC commissioner Michael Copps said in a statement, "Between a few big industry players who never liked the telecommunications law passed by Congress and previous Commissions only too ready to sacrifice the public interest to special interests, consumers find themselves in quite a box."

Copps goes on to say, "We are on the cusp of perhaps the greatest communications revolution since the printing press, yet we enter this new Digital Age arguably shorn of the ability to offer consumers the most basic of protections--such as insuring (sic) their security, safeguarding their privacy, providing them with the benefits of competition and making sure that dynamic new technologies are available to them and are open to the maximum extent possible--without needless gatekeeper control at the on-ramps to the information highway."

In arguing for the "third way" proposal, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski stated, "It's not hard to understand why companies subject to an agency's oversight would prefer no oversight at all if they had the chance. But a system of checks and balances in the communications sector has served our country well for many decades, fostering trillions of dollars of investment in wired and wireless communications networks, and in content, applications, and services--and creating countless jobs and consumer benefits."

The broadband providers argue that broadband reclassification will be detrimental, and that net neutrality regulations are unnecessary because the industry is already self-policed and swayed by free market conditions. Broadband customers should simply trust the abundant beneficence and altruistic intentions of the broadband providers.

The thing is, the inordinate backlash from the broadband providers betrays their intentions. For example, I don't really care if the IRS wants to implement a rule saying that tax evaders must repay five times the actual back taxes owed. Do you know why? Because I am not planning to be a tax evader so it has no impact on me.

Broadband Internet has become a critical element of the national infrastructure and can't be left entirely to private interests.
If Verizon isn't planning on throttling bandwidth for customers, why worry? If Comcast isn't going to discriminate against competing traffic and give preferential treatment to its own content, then it has nothing to worry about with net neutrality regulations.

More importantly, why so much pressure just to prevent the debate from even occurring in the first place? The actions of the FCC today are just to initiate a Notice of Inquiry (NOI) seeking public comment. According to the FCC press release, the NOI is looking for input to determine:

• Whether the current classification of broadband as a Title I "information service" provides the FCC with the authority and legal standing it needs to perform its duties in the interests of the public good.

• What the legal or practical consequences might be of simply reclassifying broadband Internet as a "telecommunications service" and applying all requirements of Title II of the Communications Act.

• Or, what the impact might be from the proposed "third way"--under which the FCC treats online content and applications as "information services", but applies Title II regulations to the "telecommunications service" aspects of broadband to ensure universal service, competition and market entry, and protect consumer interests.

Verizon, Comcast, AT&T, and all other parties opposed to reclassifying broadband under Title II, or opposed to the FCC's "third way" proposal are welcome to participate in the process and make those arguments during the NOI period. If the concerns and reservations are valid, they should have no issue with presenting them publicly and allowing for an open debate.

Genachowski sums it up nicely, "I ask only this of all participants in this discussion, inside and outside the Commission: Let's not pretend that the problems with the state of broadband in America don't exist; let's not pretend that the risk of excessive regulation is not real, or, at the other extreme, that the absence of basic protections for competition and consumers is acceptable.

Genachowski adds, "Instead, let's put rhetoric and posturing aside, and work together to solve the problem created by the court case, so that we can rise together to the major 21st century challenges of achieving U.S. world leadership in broadband and innovation, fostering sustainable economic growth and job creation, and bringing the benefits of broadband to all Americans."

The notice of inquiry provides extensive detail regarding the issues at hand, and provides until July 15 for submission of comments pertaining to this initiative. Businesses should take advantage of this opportunity and participate in the process to express any concerns and make any suggestions during the NOI period.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com . He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW .

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