By Barry Levine / Mobile Tech Today. Updated December 22, 2010.
It's the day after the big Federal Communications Commission vote approving Net neutrality, and the reaction is anything but neutral. Neutrality advocates, some telcos, and some politicians are not happy, but a few observers backed the measure as a step forward.
The vote was, as expected, 3-2, with the three Democratic commissioners in favor and the two Republicans opposed. In an op-ed recently in The Wall Street Journal, Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell described the plan as "jaw-dropping interventionist chutzpah as the FCC bypasses branches of our government in the dogged pursuit of needless and harmful regulation."
'A Small Step Forward'
On the other side of the fence, the pro-neutrality Free Press said the proposal ignores "overwhelming public support for real Net neutrality, instead moving forward with industry-written rules that will for the first time in Internet history allow discrimination online."
Although the three Democratic commissioners supported the plan, some leading Democratic politicians think it's insufficient. In particular, Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) called the plan "worse than nothing," although he later described it as "a small step forward -- too small by my estimation, but forward nonetheless."
Republican politicians, such as Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, were nearly universal in opposing Net neutrality on the grounds that it mandates too much government interference in the marketplace.
Among the big four U.S. carriers, Verizon Wireless and AT&T expressed strong disapproval, while Sprint Nextel called it "a fair and balanced approach" and T-Mobile adopted a wait-and-see attitude.
Apple cofounder Steve Wozniak, who attended the FCC meeting Tuesday, said he didn't think the rules "went far enough."
In a press release issued after the vote, the FCC pointed to three major rules enacted by the proposal. Rule 1 is transparency, requiring companies to "publicly disclose accurate information" so consumers can make informed choices. The FCC, for instance, took action against Comcast when the cable and Internet service provider blocked a peer-to-peer application on its network for violating terms of service that had not been clearly defined.
'Reasonable Network Management'
Rule 2 is no blocking, which specifies that a wired broadband Internet provider cannot block "lawful content, applications, services or non-harmful devices, subject to reasonable network management." The latter phase has been taken by observers to allow some unspecified amount of tiered pricing for varying levels of speed and performance.
For the mobile Internet, the no-blocking rule is similar, with the addition that a service cannot block competing applications.
The third major rule, no unreasonable discrimination, specifies that a wired Internet service provider cannot "unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic," with an exception again made for "reasonable network management."
Recently, Comcast levied an additional fee on Level 3 Communications for traffic it handled for online movie service Netflix. Level 3 said this meant a major competitive disadvantage for Netflix's movie service compared to movies provided by Comcast's cable and online services. Unless Comcast can successfully argue this is "reasonable network management," it would appear this practice is not permitted on the wired Internet.
But wireless is a different matter, and the FCC plan specifically gives wireless more latitude, on the grounds that there is a limited spectrum resource and the market is still evolving.
Late last week, for instance, a private presentation by wireless suppliers Allot Communications and Openet was leaked to the media. In it, the companies presented a plan that would charge users extra for Facebook, Skype and other sites -- but not for services provided by Vodafone, a customer of both companies. The new FCC rule will apparently not prevent such discriminatory pricing for wireless companies.