FCC Delays on Net Neutrality Decision as Industry Deals Behind Closed Doors

By Kenneth Corbin | Sep 1, 2010 | Print this Page
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The Federal Communications Commission is delaying consideration of a controversial proposal to enact open Internet rules, today announcing that it will seek additional comments from stakeholders on two of the most contentious aspects of the network neutrality debate.

Meanwhile, however, indications are mounting that tech and telecom industry insiders have been having their own discussions -- and are close to delivering their own proposal for how the FCC should approach net neutrality.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said that the agency will collect comments on the proposal to apply nondiscrimination rules to wireless networks and the extent to which ISPs should be allowed to charge extra rates for speedy delivery of special types of Internet content.

"As we've seen, the issues are complex, and the details matter," Genachowski said in a statement emailed to reporters. "Even a proposal that accepts enforceable rules can be flawed in its specifics and risk undermining the fundamental goal of preserving the open Internet."

The agency's move comes amid ongoing negotiations among industry representatives looking to broker a compromise framework for Congress or the FCC to enact open Internet rules while shielding service providers from some of the more odious regulations that they are lobbying to avoid.

On Tuesday, the head of a technology trade group that has been holding network neutrality talks said that a "final consensus" is near.

Dean Garfield, president and CEO of the Information Technology and Innovation Council (ITI), said in a statement that talks have been productive and are on track to deliver a compromise proposal for how the Federal Communications Commission should proceed with its contentious plan to enact open Internet rules.

"Over the past few weeks, we've made significant progress in our shared effort to drive continued investment and innovation across the global Internet, while protecting its openness for generations to come," Garfield said.

"When this multi-phase process is complete, we believe there will be ample common ground on which to find a meaningful and consensus-based solution."

An ITI spokeswoman declined to comment further on the details of the talks, but they are understood to focus on the more controversial aspects of the policy debate, including the wireless provisions and the exemption for managed services.

The group, which represents a host of technology firms including Apple, Intel and Oracle, is coordinating discussions with network neutrality supporters Skype and Microsoft, both of which are also ITI members, and representatives of the ISP sector, including AT&T, Verizon and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association.

The negotiations are a renewed effort on the part of industry members to reach a compromise on the proper role of the FCC in overseeing broadband service, following the breakdown of a separate set of talks that the commission had been convening.

Stifel Nicolaus analyst Rebecca Arbogast described the situation at the FCC as "unstable" as Genachowski mulled the agenda for the agency's meeting later this month.

At issue is a proposal Genachowski floated earlier this year to reclassify broadband service under communications law to a so-called Title II service, a move that would aim to strengthen the FCC's regulatory oversight over ISPs. The move followed a court ruling earlier this year that struck down the commission's order in a high-profile net neutrality case, a legal setback that had called into question the FCC's ability to act on a host of items in its broadband policy agenda -- though none more controversial than net neutrality.

Arbogast noted that the political climate in the run-up to the November elections could move Genachowski to postpone the broadband reclassification issue, citing the potentially "toxic" response that has greeted recent efforts on the part of the commission to implement sharper oversight of Internet service providers.

With today's public notice (available in PDF format here, the FCC has effectively done just that. Comments are due 30 days following the publication of the notice in the Federal Register, with another 25 days left open for reply comments.

Kenneth Corbin is an associate editor at InternetNews.com, the news service of Internet.com, the network for technology professionals.