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Inside net neutrality with FCC Commissioner Robert M. McDowell

Guest Column By Hugh Carter Donahue, special to Network World
March 12, 2010 04:31 PM ET

Network World - Billions of dollars are at stake in the FCC's net neutrality rulemaking, which could mandate rules for broadband Internet access over wireless and wireline networks.

Podcast: The FCC and Net Neutrality: Now what?

To date, network operators decide on their own how to comply with voluntary net neutrality standards, which call for enabling subscriber choice when it comes to sending and receiving lawful content, running lawful applications and services, and connecting devices to their computers, laptops and mobile phones as along as those devices do not damage providers' networks.

Now, the FCC is evaluating whether to change these voluntary standards into mandatory rules, which would limit broadband network operators' discretion to do what they want.

The FCC is also determining whether to restrict network operators from offering premium service options to content, application and service providers (the so-called non-discriminatory standard) and to compel network operators to disclose network management information so users can ascertain if they are getting the services they are paying for (the network management standard).

Service quality and speed differentiations are increasingly feasible due to technological innovations, and, some argue, desirable because they would stimulate investment. If the FCC were to permit differentiated service quality, network operators could enable content, application and service entrants to take on incumbents more effectively, and network equipment manufacturers could develop new ways to manage traffic and service quality.

The commission wishes to stimulate innovation and investment, and the net neutrality inquiry enables it to address network management technologies and practices and their impacts on Internet content, application and access markets, even though the inquiry formally addresses access.

A crucial part of the FCC rule-making process involves seeking comments from industry participants, public interest organizations and citizens.

For a commissioner's perspective on these complex issues, Network World asked Hugh Carter Donahue, a communications policy expert and scholar, to pose questions to Federal Communications Commissioner Robert M. McDowell about the net  neutrality proceeding.

If you'd like to follow-up, McDowell's e-mail is Robert.McDowell@fcc.gov, Donahue's e-mail is donahueh@rowan.edu.

You were a great proponent of competition in local telecommunications markets earlier on when you worked at Comptel promoting competitive communications services. What similarities exist with your policy views regarding competitive local phone markets and net neutrality?

During my career, I have always tried to find ways to ensure that consumers have choices. That was the goal in my previous job and has been my theme as a commissioner. Specifically, I have sought ways to increase last mile connections. And, looking at the current marketplace, American consumers have more choices in last mile providers now than ever before. As a commissioner, I have made it a priority to encourage the commission to adopt policies that create opportunities for the construction of new delivery platforms. More often than not, I have tried to approach these goals using deregulatory incentives. For example, over the past couple years, the FCC has classified broadband as less regulated "information services" under Title I of the Communications Act. As we move forward with proceedings emanating from the National Broadband Plan, I work towards finding ways to continue this trend.

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