FCC Begins Technical Inquiry Into Net Neutrality

The Federal Communications Commission today began an in-depth look into the
technical aspects of its controversial
proposal to establish Net neutrality regulations

Julius Knapp, the chief of the FCC’s Office of Engineering and technology,
introduced today’s proceeding as a down payment on the commission’s promise “to
ensure that decisions in the commission’s proceeding on the open Internet
reflect a thorough understanding of current technology.”

The day-long event is slated to hear presentations from senior technologists
around the industry, giving voice to the technical concerns of rules that would
regulate network management practices in the cable, wireline and wireless

“Today’s workshop is just the start of the technical advisory process,” Knapp

The proceeding will not result in any immediate policy proposals, but rather
is aimed as a fact-finding mission for FCC officials to arrive at a better
understanding of how far the commission should go in determining what
constitutes reasonable network management — the operative and notoriously vague
term in the debate over ensuring that all Web content receives a safe passage
across the Internet.

Scott Jordan, a professor at the University of California, Irvine, kicked off
the proceeding with a broad-brush overview of the traffic flow of the Internet,
and outlined various network management policies and proposals around the

One of the key variables Jordan described are the famously opaque
service-level agreements (SLA) providers sign with one another that govern how
traffic passes across their interconnected networks. The SLA Verizon maintains
with AT&T, for instance, might have different terms than its agreements with
smaller, regional providers.

The terms of those agreements could have a broad impact on Net neutrality
rules, Jordan explained, because of the different methods providers have of
prioritizing Internet packets. That could be a particular issue with services
and applications that have low tolerance for speed bumps that produce latency
and jitter, such as Internet phone calls.

If one provider designates voice packets as priority transmissions, but they
then travel across another provider’s network that does not, it becomes
difficult to guarantee a baseline quality of service for VoIP calling services
such as Skype.

“Will quality of service be available not just in a single network but end to
end?” Jordan asked.

Of course, the utopia for Net neutrality proponents would be the speedy
delivery of all packets handled by providers without discrimination or
prioritization. But Jordan pointed out that network activity is “bursty,”
meaning that providers find their networks overwhelmed by occasional and
short-lived periods of congestion, necessitating different techniques of traffic

“Are you going to [invest] in enough capacity to satisfy the peak demand? And
the answer is no,” he said. “It’s going to be very expensive and it’s not going
to be used very often. These times where it’s congested don’t last for hours on

So ISPs have been tinkering with different tactics for directing traffic on
their networks, such as setting aside a portion of their bandwidth for so-called
managed services that are guaranteed priority in exchange for a fee. They have
also been looking into the automatic identification and prioritization of
certain types of traffic, such as VoIP, though that entails a process known as
deep-packet inspection, which is not yet supported by the major standards
organizations and can unravel due to discrepancies in providers’ SLAs.

And, as with every aspect of the debate over Net
, the meat of the argument is in the details.

“So far those techniques are not in and of themselves either reasonable
techniques or unreasonable techniques,” Jordan said. “It depends how they are

The FCC is planning a second workshop on some of the more political aspects
of the Net neutrality debate Dec. 15. That forum intends to focus on “speech,
democratic engagement and the open Internet,” the commission said.

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