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The GigaOM Guide to the Net Neutrality Debate

capitolUpdated: Senate Republicans last night backed off a plan aimed at popping the net neutrality balloon floated by the FCC on Monday, according to the Washington Post. This is smart thinking, as there’s still much to learn and a lot less to fear about the proposed regulatory rules than naysayers would have the average person believe. We’re going to be hearing a lot of hyperbole about net neutrality in the coming months, but there are three areas on which readers, the industry and regulators should focus.

So far most ISPs have come out against net neutrality regulation — not because they’re against net neutrality per se, but because they’re against regulation, which they argue tends to get the government and bureaucratic processes involved, potentially slowing the pace of innovation. However, a lack of regulation can also slow innovation — witness the eight-month time frame for the FCC investigation into Comcast’s decision to block P2P files and imagine a startup having to fight through a probe that lasted that long. So as the FCC makes its decisions around network neutrality we need to see clearly defined plans on how to detect and censure violators of network neutrality relatively quickly. (I’m thinking a month at most.)

The fact that the FCC is allowing for “reasonable network management” in both wireless and wired networks is another key topic in this debate. Throughout the rulemaking process, everyone from ISPs to consumer rights’ organizations to average, broadband-loving citizens will be able to comment on what constitutes reasonable network management. I highly doubt that the end result will be free reign for P2P on wireless networks or other types of traffic that tend to lead to heavy network congestion. I also doubt that the fears espoused by David Young of Verizon (s vz) in Monday’s panel discussion regarding the inability of a wireless carrier to predict real-time traffic demands on their networks will be a big problem.

One of Young’s contentions was that, given the limited capacity on area towers, allowing net neutrality on a wireless network could cause problems for carriers because during peak congestion times– such as during the inauguration or an industry conference — those carriers abiding by net neutrality rules couldn’t prioritize voice or text traffic over more bandwidth-intensive activities, such as, say, someone’s lifestreaming. Figuring out how to prioritize traffic on wireless networks with limited capacity will have to be defined under reasonable network management.

The final item over which the debate will rage is the issue of transparency for any network management plans, the sixth principle that Genashowski introduced on Monday. During the public comment period we need to know how far carriers or ISPs can go in limiting services on their network as long as they disclose it in their terms of service. For example, if AT&T prohibits redirecting television traffic to the iPhone over its 3G network and discloses that fact, would that be a violation of the proposed network neutrality? If it’s not, and disclosure in the terms of service, or releasing a detailed plan for network management as Comcast has done, is enough, then the effects of net neutrality on carriers shouldn’t be as big a deal as they make it out to be. However, it also means consumers won’t be able to get Slingbox or VoIP applications on their iPhones over the AT&T 3G network.

So as the public comments get under way, we should be looking for a clear plan for finding and censuring those that violate principles of net neutrality, a definition of reasonable network management, and an understanding of whether or not ISPs’ TOS restrictions will count as being transparent enough.Any regulations endorsed by the FCC should quickly solve violations of net neutrality, but should also tread lightly when it comes to dictating how ISPs can manage their networks. Update: On Thursday, the FCC said it will vote on the net neutrality proposal at an open meeting scheduled for Oct. 22, and after that meeting, if the proposal is approved, the agency will start taking comments as part of the rulemaking process.

19 Responses to “The GigaOM Guide to the Net Neutrality Debate”

      • Brett Glass

        Bob, you’re imagining things. .No ISP is granted monopoly status. There’s lots of competition even in my small, rural town of 28,000 souls: 6 facilities-based ISPs and another dozen or so which ride entirely on the telco’s facilities (DSL providers who use Qwest’s DSL system). The only reason why competition is not even more robust is the cost of bandwidth.

    • Brett Glass

      Ironically, the currently proposed “network neutrality” rules, and also the legislation now in Congress, would prohibit the blocking of spam. (This is because, due to the weakness of the CAN-SPAM act, most spam is actually not illegal, annoying as it might be. And under both the FCC’s proposed rules and Rep. Markey’s bill, ISPs could not block this legal but highly annoying content.)

  1. Brett Glass

    Mr. Frankston has no experience in the business of Internet provision, and has no idea of what he speaks.

    The truth is that bandwidth is an expensive resource (as is spectrum), and that therefore it must be rationed to keep prices reasonable. Expecting otherwise is tantamount to expecting to be able to pump infinite amounts of gasoline, or consume infinte amounts of electricity, for free.

  2. Network operators should be given VERY limited flexibility in prioritizing traffic. The rules should be simple, such as voice trumps data in peak load or emergency situations only. Their interventions should be easily tracked and correlated to easily measured network load metrics. Beyond this, the network operators should not be allowed to prioritize packets.

  3. At this stage, as it did a year ago, the term net neutrality has no clear meaning yet inflames feelings. However, once the legislators and lobbyists and lawyers and bureaucrats have fed off it, it will mean burdensome overhead leading to additional costs for the end-user.

    At that time, knowing what it is, we will need to implement a way to ‘route around it’.

  4. There’s another tool that wireless carriers are using more regularly to defeat network neutrality: tiers of service. For example, AT&T starts off with data service for which you pay by the byte. Then for a big chunk of cash, you can add “unlimited data” service. But they don’t really mean unlimited. They mean “unlimited” if you carry a flip phone. If you use a PDA, then they have a third tier for another pile of money that gives you “unlimited” service on the PDA. But they don’t really mean unlimited. If you want tethering, then that’s another chunk of change. Greedy bastards comes to mind. Government support of the existing wireless oligopoly in the U.S. is what needs to end.