FCC's Genachowski pushes for vote on net neutrality

The chairman's plan would not reclassify broadband, but would treat mobile broadband differently than wired

The FCC's chairman outlines a proposal on net neutrality and pushes for a vote Dec. 21.

U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski will push for a vote this month on new network neutrality rules that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking customer access to legal Web content and require providers to disclose their network management practices.

The proposal, outlined by Genachowski Wednesday, would also bar wireline-based broadband providers from "unreasonable discrimination" against Web traffic, although it would not impose that rule on mobile broadband providers. The FCC would watch mobile broadband providers closely and act if it sees evidence of anticonsumer or anticompetitive conduct, Genachowski said in a speech.

The proposal would not reclassify broadband as regulated, common-carrier service, as Genachowski proposed earlier this year. Genachowski said he's confident that the FCC has the authority to pass net neutrality rules without reclassifying broadband.

The FCC needs to act because there are "real risks" to the Internet's openness, with broadband providers in recent years attempting to block customer access to Web content, Genachowski said. The new proposal is based on ideas from both Republicans and Democrats in recent years, he added.

"A central goal of the proposed open Internet framework is to foster this cycle of massive investment in both the edge and the core of broadband networks, to the benefit of consumers and our economy," Genachowski said. "Protecting Internet freedom will drive the Internet job creation engine."

Genachowski, a Democrat, announced early Wednesday that a vote on the new rules was tentatively scheduled for the commission's Dec. 21 meeting. The vote is scheduled about a month before Republicans, many of the opposed to new net neutrality rules, will take over the majority in the U.S. House of Representatives, likely killing any chance of net neutrality rules passing in Congress.

Genachowski's plan, with details still to come, received mixed reviews.

FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell, a Republican, blasted the proposal. "I strongly oppose this ill-advised maneuver," he said in a statement. "Such rules would upend three decades of bipartisan and international consensus that the Internet is best able to thrive in the absence of regulation."

The proposal is likely to meet opposition in Congress, McDowell said.

Genachowski pushed a "small group of hand-picked industry players" to accept either this proposal or reclassification, McDowell added. That choice "smacks more of coercion than consensus or compromise," he said.

The proposal comes from a slim Democratic majority at a "rogue agency," added Mike Wendy, director of MediaFreedom.org, an antiregulation advocacy group.

"With only specious claims and speculation to back their regulations -- not to mention dubious legislative authority -- the FCC has embarked on 'fixing' one of the greatest nonregulated communications tools ever created," Wendy said in an e-mail. "Sadly, this will frustrate its continued growth for Americans, slowing, in particular, the roll-out of new lines and services to U.S. homes, businesses and individuals."

Broadband providers AT&T and Verizon Communications said they will wait until they see the full language of the proposal before deciding whether to support it.

Genachowski's plan appears to closely follow a compromise that AT&T has supported earlier, said Jim Cicconi, AT&T's senior executive vice president of external and legislative affairs.

"The prospect of net neutrality regulation has lingered as a very real threat to industry investment and jobs for several years," he said in a statement. "Obviously, AT&T's strong preference would be for the FCC to refrain from any regulation in the Internet space. We feel the industry's track record, the utter absence of any specific ongoing problem, and the state of the economy all argue for regulatory restraint."

Others praised the plan. Genachowski's efforts are an attempt to preserve an open and free Internet, said Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist.org.

"Common-sense rules of the road will help ensure certainty in markets while also preserving the openness and freedom of the Internet that has helped generate millions of jobs and share billions [b] of ideas around the world," he said in a statement. "To clarify, I'm interested in preserving traditional American values like fairness and a level-playing, with the least amount of government involvement."

Venture capitalist Ron Conway, a co-founder of SV Angel, also praised the plan. "I treasure the Internet as an engine for innovation and economic possibility -- protecting its openness is vital to protecting America's critical technological competitive advantages," Conway said in a statement. "This light-touch, common-sense framework will help protect investment and innovation throughout the ecosystem and will ensure certainty in markets for years to come."

However, some groups calling for strong net neutrality rules criticized Genachowski's plan as a weak attempt. The plan, without equal rules for mobile broadband and other protections for consumers, is "fake" net neutrality, said Josh Silver, president and CEO of Free Press, a media reform group.

The plan appears to be similar to a compromise proposal earlier this year from Verizon and Google that would split the Internet into "fast and slow lanes," Silver said in a statement.

"Real net neutrality means a clear prohibition on paid prioritization, equal protections on wireless and wired networks, and a clear user-focused definitions of broadband access and reasonable network management," he added. "But is appears that the current draft order falls short on each of these important aspects, with language that creates loopholes that you could drive a Verizon-Google-sized truck through."

The FCC stepped up efforts to pass net neutrality rules earlier this year, after a U.S. appeals court ruled in April that the agency overstepped its authority when attempting to enforce informal net neutrality principles in a case involving Comcast throttling peer-to-peer traffic on its network.

Just this week, broadband backbone provider Level 3 Communications and modem maker Zoom Telephonics complained that Comcast is violating net neutrality principles in its dealings with the two companies.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's e-mail address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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