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FCC's net neutrality order: The basics

FCC releases basic outline, final draft still being hammered out

By Brad Reed, Network World
December 22, 2010 10:50 AM ET

Network World - 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.

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