FCC seeks more feedback on net neutrality

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission, in the midst of a long and often contentious debate over whether it should enact formal rules prohibiting broadband providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web content, is asking the public for more comments about network neutrality.

The FCC will seek comments on whether net neutrality rules should apply to mobile broadband or specialized and managed services, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced Wednesday. Under a net neutrality proposal released by Verizon Communications and Google in August, mobile broadband and managed services would be exempt from net neutrality rules, but many consumer and digital rights groups have complained that those exemptions would fragment the Internet and hurt users.

"Recent events have highlighted questions on how open Internet rules should apply to 'specialized' services and to mobile broadband -- what framework will guarantee Internet freedom and openness, and maximize private investment and innovation," Genachowski said in a statement. "As we've seen, the issues are complex, and the details matter. Even a proposal that accepts enforceable rules can be flawed in its specifics and risk undermining the fundamental goal of preserving the open Internet."

The FCC's wireline and wireless bureaus will seek new public comment on managed services and on mobile broadband, Genachowski announced. The extended deadline for comments on the original net neutrality notice of proposed rulemaking ended in April.

Genachowski's plan to pass formal net neutrality rules hit a roadblock in April, when a U.S. appeals court ruled that the FCC did not have authority to enforce informal principles in a case involving Comcast throttling peer-to-peer traffic. Genachowski then called on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service as a first step toward creating formal net neutrality rules, but broadband carriers have resisted the change. Dozens of U.S. lawmakers have called on the FCC to defer decisions on broadband reclassification to Congress.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, a trade group representing cable-based broadband providers, promised Wednesday to work with the FCC on net neutrality rules. The new inquiry raises "important and complex issues," NCTA said in a statement.

Randolph May, president of conservative think tank the Free State Foundation, praised the FCC for issuing the new inquiry.

"Seeking further comment on the issues relating to specialized services and wireless platforms can only serve to further clarify the issues and, potentially, bridge differences," May said. "This is surely positive."

Companies and groups debating net neutrality rules have "made progress" since the FCC issued a notice of proposed rulemaking on net neutrality in October, Genachowski said in his statement. A consensus for a set of enforceable net neutrality, or open Internet, rules is growing, he said.

However, Public Knowledge and Media Access Project, two groups calling for strong net neutrality rules, called on the FCC to move forward with net neutrality rules. Nothing in the new inquiry would prevent the FCC from reclassifying broadband and passing net neutrality rules, Gigi Sohn, Public Knowledge's president, said in a statement.

The FCC has already received comments on net neutrality rules for mobile broadband and managed services in two proceedings, Sohn said.

"Recent events prove that giant companies left to regulate themselves will craft rules full of loopholes and exceptions that benefit their own interest, not the public interest," added Matt Wood, associate director of Media Access Project. "The commission asks the same questions time and time again about wireless broadband services and specialized services, instead of providing basic answers on the basis of the robust record it already has compiled."

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

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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