Net Neutrality Debate Spills Over to Broadband Stimulus

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Carriers and net neutrality proponents found themselves at odds Monday during a discussion on whether to place strict net neutrality conditions on any broadband network built using economic stimulus money.

Held at the U.S. Department of Commerce in Washington, D.C., Monday, the panel discussion was intended to give the National Telecommunications and Information Administration (NTIA) and the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) guidelines for funding companies that pledge to built out broadband networks in underserved areas. The crux of the debate was whether the government should enforce a strict policy of nondiscrimination on networks built with broadband stimulus money.

Specifically, the stimulus legislation says that any networks built with the funds must adhere to the "nondiscrimination and network interconnection obligations" that the Federal Communications Commission first outlined in 2005. These principles state that networks must allow users to access any lawful Internet content of their choice, to run any legal Web applications of their choice, and to connect to the network using any device that does not harm the network. Additionally, the principles state that consumers are "entitled to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers."

However, some net neutrality advocates argued during the debate Monday that these principles are not written strongly enough to specifically bar networks from slowing down competitors' content in favor of their own.

"In exchange for extraordinary government benefit, grant recipients must not degrade, prioritize or discriminate against any lawful content, application or service," said Gigi Sohn, the president of advocacy group Public Knowledge. "Thus we urge the NTIA to ensure that there is an explicit prohibition that will ensure nondiscrimination."

Ben Scott, the policy director at the media reform group Free Press, expressed a similar sentiment and said that the Internet has been so successful because networks have served users content on a first-come, first-served basis and have not placed a priority on their preferred content.

"Nondiscrimination is a simple principle that everybody takes for granted," he said. "That means control over the market of consumers and providers, not the monopoly of the network companies. There should be no unnecessary discrimination between different kinds of online content. It's basic and fundamental and it does not lend itself to half measures."

However, representatives from major carriers said it would be a mistake for the NTIA and USDA to enforce nondiscrimination principles that expanded beyond the FCC's four principles. Jonathan Banks, who heads the U.S. Telecom Association's law and policy group, said the FCC's four principles set the "right approach" and that it would be out of the NTIA's area of expertise to expand their scope any farther when awarding broadband stimulus grants. Furthermore, he said that adding on new restrictions against network discrimination could slow the process of getting stimulus money out to where it's needed.

"I think we all agree... that the [stimulus bill] was enacted with the goal of creating jobs as soon as possible and promoting economic recovery as soon as possible," he said. "The idea that we should lay additional and unknown regulations on top of the task of the people getting this grant money is, I think, troubling at best. You need to build broadband to these people and we don't need to raise the potential costs of doing that."

Chris Guttman-McCabe, the vice president for regulatory affairs at the CTIA wireless association, echoed Banks' concerns and said the government has spent years debating how to implement net neutrality rules and that it would be impossible to come up with a workable set of regulations for newly built networks over the next few weeks. He also said that placing net neutrality restrictions on the networks could take away from the central focus of the stimulus package, which is "creating the most jobs and helping reverse the recession."

But Kevin Werbach, an assistant professor of legal studies and business ethics at the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania, noted that the FCC has placed network neutrality restrictions on carriers in the past, such as when it made AT&T pledge to run a neutral network for at least two years as a precondition of its merger with BellSouth in 2007. He said that applying network neutrality principles to networks built with stimulus funds wouldn't require "reinventing the wheel" but could rather rely on the current precedent that was set by the AT&T-BellSouth merger, as well as the FCC's decision last year to bar Comcast from throttling certain peer-to-peer protocols.

Monday's meeting at the Department of Commerce was just one of several public meetings the NTIA is holding this month to debate how to implement 'Net neutrality principles in all federal broadband stimulus contracts, as well as to determine which communities are in most need of broadband stimulus money.

The government plans to have three separate rounds to award grants for broadband stimulus projects, with the first occurring this spring, the second in the fall and the last in the spring of 2010. In all, the government has designated US$7.2 billion to fund broadband infrastructure in the recently passed economic stimulus package.

This story, "Net Neutrality Debate Spills Over to Broadband Stimulus" was originally published by Network World.

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