FCC Chairman Says 'Balance' is Key to Net Neutrality

Discusses Comcast, Net Neutrality and other issues at Stanford confab.

By David Needle | Posted Mar 10, 2008
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STANFORD, Calif. – What role does the federal government have in the network neutrality (define) debate? Where are things at with the 700 MHz wireless spectrum auction? Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Kevin Martin addressed these and other issues today at an event here at the Stanford Law School.

The FCC has been on something of an outreach campaign of late that included a public hearing at Harvard last month that also focused on telecommunications and network management issues. In his remarks today, Martin specifically said he wants to finish the FCC's consideration of complaints related to network management issues by the first half of this year.

How the FCC might rule on the various cases remains to be seen. Martin said he believes his tenure has been marked by a "lighter regulatory touch," but that doesn't mean action won't be taken where needed. He noted, for example, the FCC already took action three years ago, when it fined a small telecom firm for blocking Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) (define) traffic.

"The challenge is to find a balance to where the Commission should act," said Martin. "It shouldn't be inherently partisan," he added in reference to what he called extremist views in both the Republican (no regulation) and Democratic (excessive regulation) camps.

Martin described the complaints and controversy over Comcast's blocking of BitTorrent traffic as "an opportunity to demonstrate we will enforce 'reasonable network access' principles and allow innovation to occur …. I have testified that I'm ready, willing and able to act, and I think that's what we're doing."

Comcast has denied its practices are discriminatory, but claimed they are more a question of network management that led the company to at times limit certain bandwidth-heavy applications.

In 2005, the FCC approved four "principles" that summarize the basic rights of Internet end users: end users have the right to access content; run applications and services; connect devices to the network; and to expect competition among network, application, service and content providers.

But the controversy over network neutrality remains. "The FCC hasn't said whether 'broadband providers' can have a fast lane versus a slow lane," said Martin. "The Commission hasn't spoken to that. To the extent you are asserting network management as a defense against the four principles, all the applications have to be treated the same, or it's truly not about network management but about arbitrary blocking."

Martin also emphasized that the extent to which a company discloses its network management practices to consumers and developers would be critical to the FCC's evaluation of any complaint. He noted the Comcast case was a primary focus of the hearing at Harvard over another complaint filed against Verizon Communications for e-mail blocking.

"I don't disagree Verizon was an important issue," he said. "The difference is that Verizon, even before the complaint was filed, acknowledged they shouldn't have performed that practice and have changed the practice. Comcast is still claiming its practices were appropriate."

Spectrum Auction a Big Hit

Switching gears, Martin said the ongoing Federal auction of 700 MHz wireless spectrum is already a great success. He said there has been 179 rounds to date, and 7 new bids today.

"We've raised over $19.5 billion, almost double the expectation," he said. "The spectrum here is uniquely able to provide broadband wireless that penetrates walls very easily and is very conducive to wireless broadband data services. It's the best 'beachfront property' you're going to see for quite some time."

Google, AT&T and Verizon are believed to be the last three bidders for the so-called "C" block license, considered the most prized part of the spectrum being auctioned. The minimum starting bid for the C block was $4.6 billion. The band is highly sought-after because it's considered ideal for delivering advanced wireless services, including broadband that meets or exceeds the speeds of DSL or cable modems.

Some analysts have speculated that Google, since it is not a carrier, would find partners, such as regional telcos, if it wins the auction.

Article courtesy of InternetNews.com

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