Net neutrality plan will likely pass, says ex-FCC chairman

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission will likely approve a compromise network neutrality proposal from its current chairman later this month with the support of many large broadband providers, Michael Powell, former chairman of the agency, said Tuesday.

Powell, a Republican, questioned the need for new net neutrality rules, but he suggested that long-term uncertainty over the proposed regulations has held back investment in the telecom industry. "At the end of the day, it's time to move," Powell said during an Internet Innovation Alliance forum.

Powell, now a senior adviser for communications and media investment firm Providence Equity Partners, questioned whether net neutrality supporters have shown evidence of consumer harm by broadband providers. And he suggested that the FCC and others engaged in a contentious debate over net neutrality this year could have focused on more important issues, including broadband deployment and adoption.

"For the better part of the year, regrettably to some degree, we have been stuck in the never-ending debate over net neutrality," he said. "Rarely in my time in communications have I seen so much valuable time and money and energy spent on so modest a gain."

Groups on both sides of the net neutrality debate have criticized the plan released by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski this month. Congressional Republicans have ripped into Genachowski for attempting to pass new regulations in the wake of an election when many antiregulation candidates won seats in Congress.

Reps. Joe Barton of Texas and Cliff Stearns of Florida, two senior Republicans on the House Energy and Commerce Committee, called Genachowki's plan "inappropriate." The commission chairman is calling for a vote on new net neutrality rules on Dec. 21.

"The FCC should defer to Congress, a majority of which has clearly expressed concerns that regulating the Internet will cause harm, not good," Stearns said in a statement earlier this month.

Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tenn.) said Saturday on C-SPAN's "The Communicators" she would introduce legislation preventing the FCC from enforcing net neutrality rules if the commission takes action this month.

Meanwhile, FCC Commissioner Michael Copps, like Genachowski a Democrat, has questioned whether the FCC can pass net neutrality rules without reclassifying broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service, something the Genachowski plan doesn't include. Copps, in a speech last Thursday, also questioned why Genachowski's plan exempts mobile broadband from some net neutrality rules.

Media reform group Free Press has also blasted the Genachowski proposal, calling it "fake" net neutrality.

But broadband provider Comcast has voiced support for Genachowski's plan, saying it "strikes a workable balance between the needs of the marketplace and the certainty that carefully-crafted and limited rules can provide to ensure that Internet freedom and openness are preserved."

Copps would "blow up" the net neutrality proposal by voting with the commission's two Republican members against Genachowski's proposal, Powell said. Copps could also demand changes to the proposal, but any attempts to create additional regulations would lead to "World War III" in Congress, Powell predicted.

But Copps would be smart accept a compromise net neutrality plan instead of getting nothing at all, Powell said. Broadband providers may see the Genachowski proposal as the status quo, with the rules formalizing their standard practices of not discriminating against Web traffic, he added.

"I don't think their business plans are going in that direction [of blocking traffic] and could succeed in going in that direction," Powell said. "I don't know where the economic case is for strangling off the consumer's options on the data pipe space and profiting from that in a meaningful, long-term way."

With broadband reclassification off the table, many providers may be willing to accept the Genachowski plan, Powell added. "They're committed to openness anyway," he said. "If they can get to a place where they're comfortable, it's actually rational for them to support that position."

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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