Does the FCC want to oversee peering deals like Netflix vs. Comcast?

The FCC will soon pass new rules for how ISP’s must handle broadband traffic and, while it’s expected to impose a policy of net neutrality when it comes to consumers, it’s been less clear how the agency will resolve another thorny internet issue: whether network providers can charge content companies to accept their traffic — and throttle their streams if they don’t pay. On Wednesday, a report surfaced that suggested how the issue will play out.

The issue, known in the industry as peering or interconnectedness, became a hot topic last year as Netflix feeds failed across the country, leaving consumers to shout at their screens and wonder who to blame. Big broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon sought to fault Netflix and the content companies, claiming they should have to pay a toll to offset the large volumes of internet traffic they create.

Netflix and traffic management services like Level 3, however, claimed that the ISPs has deliberately degraded their traffic by refusing to carry out low-cost upgrades to key internet ports. Calling the tactic a form of extortion, the content companies have also accused the ISPs of double-dipping — saying the ISP’s already charge consumers to receive the internet, and those charges should include all infrastructure fees on the backend.

Now, a long report from Bloomberg cited a source that claims to know how FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler plans to resolve this grand conflict.

According to the source, Wheeler is prepared to bless those paid peering deals as part of a larger framework of internet rules. But he will reportedly also do so in a way that permits the likes of YouTube or Vimeo to complain if the ISP’s are not being “fair or reasonable” with their agreements. As the report said:

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has decided the rules, scheduled for a vote next month, will permit the agreements but include a procedure for companies to ask for agency review, said the person, who asked to remain anonymous because the plan hasn’t been made public.

This pronouncement, however, may be premature.

Blanket ban or case-by-case?

No one will be surprised if the issue of interconnectedness appears in the first draft of the new FCC rules which, under law, must be circulated by Chairman Tom Wheeler to the other FCC Commissioners at least three weeks before a vote. These are expected to go out (and get leaked to the press) on February 5.

Indeed, Wheeler demanded data from the companies last summer, as part of an investigation into the public outrage that occurred over the stuttering Netflix streams.

The big question now is not just whether Wheeler will include peering agreements in a larger framework of rules, but the way in which such arrangements will be overseen.

According to a source familiar with the debate, ISPs are likely reconciled to the fact that their current paid arrangements with Netflix, which are currently unregulated, will come under the nose of the FCC in the future.

As such, they are now pushing to ensure that any enforcement occurs on a case-by-case basis over whether a given deal is “fair and reasonable,” rather than in response to a bright line rule that outlaws the sort of pay-for-service deals the ISP’s forced on Netflix last year.

The Bloomberg report, which does not cite any documents and on which the FCC declined to comment, suggests that Wheeler has decided to go with the case-by-case approach. While this would nominally ensure fair oversight, it would also allow the ISPs, as they have done in the past, to deploy their formidable legal teams to ensure any complaints would take years to resolve. In other words, this could be a case where ISPs are trying to make the best of a bad outcome.

As such, it’s unclear if the report is a bona fide insight into Wheeler’s thinking, or is instead just an opening salvo in what is sure to be a ferocious spin cycle as the day of the FCC vote gets closer.