Networking

FCC's Net Neutrality Order: What It Means For Internet Access

Although the FCC voted along partisan lines Tuesday to pass a network neutrality order, it wasn't until hours later that the public got to see glimpses of what was passed.

Hours after the vote the FCC posted several "key excerpts" from the order on its Web site. The final order is still being written and will likely be posted over the next few days, as the commission still has to iron out concerns from members who voted for the order but also dissented on some parts.

[Also read: FCC's net neutrality vote criticized by both sides]

So what does this order mean for Internet access? The short version is that it makes fixed broadband services neutral, it leaves mobile broadband operators a lot of maneuverability in managing their networks and it takes a wait-and-see approach to carriers' plans to develop specialized IP-based services that are separate from the public Internet.

To break things down further:

For wireline service providers: First, the order mandates that wireline broadband providers must publicly disclose their network management practices so that consumers know how and why an ISP manages their network to optimize performance. So for example, a user who spends all day streaming high-definition video should know that the ISP may slow down his connection during peak traffic hours to ensure that he isn't crowding other users out.

But other than that, wireline services are held to basic network neutrality rules as the order states that they "shall not block lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management." Similarly, the order says that wireline ISPs "shall not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful traffic over a consumer's broadband Internet access service." The FCC says that examples of reasonable network management include "addressing traffic that is harmful to the network, addressing traffic that is unwanted by users... and reducing or mitigating the effects of congestion on the network."

For wireless service providers: In contrast to wireline, the FCC is being more flexible for wireless Internet services. Whereas wireline providers were barred from discriminating against any lawful and non-harmful traffic, applications, services or devices, wireless ISPs are only required to give users access to all lawful websites and to not block applications that compete directly with the ISP's own voice or video telephony services. In other words, mobile ISPs won't be able to block Skype or similar voice applications from riding over their network but they will have wide leniency to block other applications they aren't in direct competition with.

The FCC says that it isn't applying the same requirements on wireless Internet service because "mobile broadband presents special considerations that suggest differences in how and when open Internet protections should apply." Thus, the FCC has settled on taking "measured steps" to ensure very limited network neutrality restrictions that only cover access to Web sites and to competing applications. The FCC says nothing about wireless carriers slowing or degrading traffic to targeted Web sites or applications.

For separate, "specialized services": The FCC is pretty much taking a hands-off approach on this for now and will wait and see how this market plays out. The FCC defines "specialized services" as "services that share capacity with broadband Internet access over providers' last-mile facilities... such as some broadband providers' existing facilities-based VoIP and Internet Protocol-video offerings." The commission says these services "differ from broadband Internet access service and may drive additional private investment in broadband networks and provide consumers valued services, supplementing the benefits of the open Internet."

The concept of "differentiated" or "specialized" IP-based services entered the popular lexicon earlier this year when Verizon and Google released a joint net neutrality framework that allowed carriers to engage in traffic prioritization for "any additional or differentiated services" that "could make use of... Internet content." Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg cited Verizon's fiber-optic television service as one example of a differentiated service that utilized IP connectivity. Other examples of "differentiated services," say the companies, include "healthcare monitoring, the smart grid, advanced educational services, or new entertainment or gaming options."

Because this concept is fairly new, the FCC says it will simply monitor how such services develop to ensure they aren't "in any way retarding the growth of or constricting capacity available for broadband Internet access service." The FCC also says it expects broadband providers to "disclose information about specialized services' impact, if any, on last-mile capacity available for... broadband Internet service access." Additionally, the FCC expects that carriers will "increase capacity offered for broadband Internet access service" if they choose to expand their network for more specialized services.

This opens up the question of what happens if these additional services become so intertwined with the regular Internet that the two become indistinguishable. For instance, let's say FiOS incorporates Hulu as an application of its fiber-based television services, thus letting users re-watch reruns of their favorite shows on demand. Won't this by definition be giving favorable treatment to a preferred Web site at the expense of others? The FCC has decided for now that this particular concern can wait to be addressed another day.

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