FCC urged to support net-neutrality in U.S. broadband plan

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission should include net-neutrality rules in a national broadband plan the agency is developing over the next seven months, thousands of U.S. residents have told the FCC.

With the public comment period for the FCC's national broadband plan closing today, comments continued to flow into the agency's Web site, with many using a form letter from media reform group Free Press to ask the FCC to include net-neutrality and open-access rules in the plan. As of noon, more than 9,700 comments had been filed with the FCC on the national broadband plan.

"An open and accessible Internet is essential to America's future," says the form letter. "In crafting the national broadband plan, the Federal Communications Commission must protect Internet users from corporate gatekeepers who seek to keep prices high and speeds slow, limit access to content and stifle innovation and market choice. Net Neutrality must be a basic and enforceable rule of the Internet. The plan must also ensure that every American -- regardless of race, income or location -- can connect to broadband at prices everyone can afford."

The definitions differ depending on whom you talk to, but net-neutrality rules would generally prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing customers' access to any legal Web content. Supporters of net-neutrality rules say broadband providers have market incentives to slow or block content that competes with their own offerings or that of their business partners.

Broadband providers have argued that net-neutrality rules are unnecessary and could keep them from managing their networks. The FCC enforces net neutrality on a case-by-case basis, but a more formal rule could stifle the broadband marketplace by discouraging private investment, some free market think tanks argued.

Free Press, Public Knowledge and other groups calling for new broadband regulations offer "a vision in which broadband is regulated in an inflexibly heavy-handed manner as a traditional public utility service ... and in which government regulators in Washington decide which services and applications should be made available to consumers," wrote Randolph May, president of the Free State Foundation, a free market think tank.

"Even a casual reading of their comments will show that these commenters have a very strong anti-market bias that leads them presumptively to favor, at every turn, more government control over the communications marketplace," May wrote.

Free Press and pro-net neutrality groups seem to ignore that about 92% of U.S. residents have access to broadband, May wrote in a comment to the FCC filed Tuesday.

"Their comments reflect an ingrained anti-market bias, one that invariably dictates more regulation, and a bias against privately-owned broadband networks," he added. "Rather than any nuanced view that focuses on, say, unserved areas as targets for special regulatory attention or support, or that acknowledges existing evidence as to why Americans do not subscribe to broadband service, [these groups] take a blunderbuss approach that advocates one-size-fits-all nationwide regulatory solutions."

With so many U.S. residents having access to broadband, any new regulations should be narrowly targeted, added Kenneth Ferree, president of the Progress and Freedom Foundation, a conservative think tank.

"Fortunately, the sky is not falling and reports of our national broadband demise have been greatly exaggerated," Ferree wrote in comments to the FCC. "As a factual matter, all evidence suggests that, in the case of broadband markets, people do seek variety and they do use different platforms and services to satisfy different market demands. If anything, the broadband market is not behaving like a market in failure, but rather one that is characterized by rapid development, frequent service improvements, and widespread consumer satisfaction."

Free Press and other pro-net neutrality groups have argued that the rules are needed because significant competition for broadband service doesn't exist in most parts of the country. Most areas of the country have either one or two wired broadband providers, although critics suggest wireless and satellite providers should be counted.

In addition to net-neutrality rules, Public Knowledge, the New America Foundation and other groups have called for a separation between wholesale and retail broadband services and reform of the rates large providers charge for so-called special access, the high capacity transmission path that connects the Internet backbone to local facilities.

"Plainly put, access to broadband has become an essential utility, as much as water and electricity are essential utilities," Public Knowledge and three other groups wrote in an FCC comment filed June 8. "Broadband is not a luxury, and the policy of the United States, particularly the National Broadband Plan, should reflect that reality."

Not every individual filing comments stuck to the Free Press form letter.

"I am writing in 100% support of Net Neutrality," wrote J.D. Downing, of Bend, Ore. "I am a taxpayer, a small businessman, and a voter. As such I am also your employer. Corporations are not. Your first and only responsibility lies with me and hundreds of millions of other Americans just like me."

Copyright © 2009 IDG Communications, Inc.

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