FCC chairman proposes `open Internet’ rules

Joshua Van Hoesen

From The Associated Press


Wireless carriers shouldn’t be allowed to block certain types of Internet traffic flowing over their networks, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission chairman said Monday in a speech that figures to provoke a fight with the industry.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said wireless carriers should be subject to the same “open Internet” rules that the agency has begun to apply to home broadband providers.

It’s unclear how the rules would apply in practice to wireless data. For instance, carriers officially restrict how Internet-access cards for laptops are used, but rarely enforce the rules. The government also has been investigating Apple Inc.’s approval process for iPhone applications, but Genachowski isn’t directly addressing manufacturers’ right to determine which applications run on their phones.

Essentially, Genachowski wants to codify the principles the FCC has already been applying to wired Internet traffic — and extend them to wireless.

Last year, the agency sanctioned Comcast Corp. for secretly hampering file-sharing traffic by its cable-modem subscribers. In making that ruling, the agency relied on broad “principles” of open Internet access that hadn’t previously been put to the test. The cable company filed suit, saying the FCC didn’t have the authority to tell it how to run its network. The case is still in federal appeals court.

The chairman is now proposing to make it a formal rule that Internet carriers cannot discriminate against certain types of traffic by degrading service. That expands on the principle that they cannot “block” traffic, as articulated in a 2005 policy statement.

Internet service providers, both wired and wireless, are struggling with the question of how to distribute network capacity among their subscribers. Heavy users can easily overwhelm cellular toward and neighborhood cable circuits, slowing traffic for everyone. Wireless carriers are also likely to object to new regulation by pointing out that their industry is intensely competitive.

At the same time, consumer advocates and Web companies like Google Inc. want to safeguard what has been an underlying “Net Neutrality” assumption of the Internet: that all traffic is treated equally by the network. If the carriers can degrade or block traffic, they become the gatekeepers of the Internet, able to shut out innovation, these critics say.

Comcast has already changed its system to one that does not look at what types of traffic subscribers are using. Instead, it throttles back the speed of heavy users if there is congestion on the network. However, there are other companies that might fall afoul of the new principle. Cox Communications, another cable company, has been testing a system that slows traffic that it deems less time-sensitive, like file downloads and software updates, to keep Web pages, streaming video and online games working faster.

In his speech Monday in Washington, which was broadcast on the Internet, the FCC chairman also proposed to make it a formal rule that Internet service providers have to tell customers about how they manage traffic to handle congestion. Some companies might be managing traffic in subtle ways without notifying customers.