By Roy Mark
August 9, 2005
Remember the dreaded “walled gardens,” where closed-system broadband providers would decide what content would be delivered over their high-speed pipes? The end of the Internet as we know it?
The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) certainly does. After voting Friday to allow phone companies to close their DSL lines, the agency also issued a new policy statement supporting open networks.
After ruling in 2002 that cable companies could close their lines to competing broadband providers, then FCC Chairman Michael Powell and his fellow commissioners were roundly condemned by many for providing the ground work for walled gardens of content.
The U.S. Supreme Court upheld the FCC decision. New Chairman Kevin Martin almost immediately moved to give the incumbent Bells’ high-speed networks the same status as cable modem broadband, but not before declaring its fealty to the open and interconnected nature of the Internet.
In the statement, the FCC declared that consumers are entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice, run applications and services of their choice and plug in and run legal devices of their choice. The FCC also said consumers have a right to competition among network providers, application and service providers and content providers.
“Consumers have demanded this ability, and cable and telephone companies have delivered it,” Martin said at the Friday open meeting of the FCC. “In a competitive marketplace, providers must do so. They provide a service consumers want or they do not succeed.”
There’s only one problem with the FCC’s lofty statement of principle: it has absolutely no force of law.
“Policy statements do not establish rules nor are they enforceable documents,” Martin said. But he added, “Today’s statement does reflect core beliefs that each member [of the FCC] holds regarding how broadband Internet access should function.”
Monday, U.S. Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a longtime player in congressional Internet policy circles, praised the FCC’s statement but pointed out the inherent weakness of its position.
“The absence of a binding statute codifying the principles of Net Neutrality leaves a significant gap in our regulatory structure which will undoubtedly be exploited again by companies seeking to gain an inappropriate competitive advantage,” Boucher said in a statement.
The 12-term congressman called for lawmakers to turn the FCC statement of principles into law since no binding rule or law currently exists to prohibit network operators from engaging in anti-competitive practices in the operation of their platforms.
“The next step must be taken by the Congress in codifying the Net neutrality principles and bestowing on the FCC the clear authority to enforce the principles,” he said.
Evidence of anti-competitive behavior is thin so far, but in March the FCC fined a small North Carolina telecom carrier for blocking Voice over IP (define) calls delivered by competitors to the telecom’s own VoIP service.
Madison River Communications of Mebane, N.C., which owns and operates four rural telephone companies in Georgia, Alabama, North Carolina and Illinois, admitted no guilt but agreed to pay a $15,000 fine and promised to drop the practice.
“This is the single-largest problem VoIP will face. It’s critical not only to our survival but for all next-generation IP services,” Jason Talley, CEO of VoIP provider Nuvio, told internetnews.com at the time. “Port blocking is easy to point out, but the other stuff [degrading the VoIP signal] is harder to prove.”
Talley added, “Here’s what cable is afraid of: they sell someone a broadband connection and then they get their video service from, say, SBC.”
Boucher said Monday the principles of Net neutrality should be incorporated into any telecom reform by lawmakers.
“As the House and Senate prepare to reexamine our nation’s telecommunications laws, we have an opportunity to use a light regulatory touch and insert into the statutory law the very common sense principles of Net neutrality,” Boucher said.