FCC Chief Pitches Broadband Regulation Compromise

Julius Genachowski outlines net neutrality proposals in speech as other agency commissioners raise concerns.

NEW YORK -- FCC chairman Julius Genachowski on Wednesday outlined in a speech a compromise plan for the regulation of broadband providers that he circulated among his colleagues late Tuesday in the hope of getting these so-called “net neutrality” rules passed at a meeting on Dec. 21.

His proposals seemed to try to balance the interests of various groups affected by any regulatory framework, such as cable and telecom firms, Hollywood studios and creatives and tech companies.

Genachowski’s latest proposal would prohibit broadband providers from discriminating against lawful traffic, but allow them to engage in “reasonable network management" to avoid congestion, for example.

He also seemed to leave ISPs room to use "usage based pricing," meaning they could charge heavy users of streaming movies and other bandwidth-intensive services more. His outline also leaves some less regulated room for wireless broadband providers to avoid hampering innovation given that the mobile broadband is developing quickly and still in its early stages.

Highlighting his focus on bridging various interests, Genachowski said in his speech that his proposal would make sure that “the Internet remains a powerful platform for innovation and job creation; it would empower consumers and entrepreneurs; it would protect free expression; it would increase certainty in the marketplace, and spur investment both at the edge and in the core of our broadband networks.”

If things go as planned, the new regulatory framework could be in place before the new Congress starts in January.

A spokesman for the MPAA said the organization will review the proposal very carefully in the coming days as any framework would have “a major impact” on all people in the movie and TV community.

American Cable Association president and CEO Matthew Polka lauded Genachowski’s “desire to reach a balanced compromise – one that rests on a desire to protect broadband consumers while at the same time recognizing the important network management concerns of broadband providers.”

The Writers Guild of America, East in a statement said it will study the Genachowski proposal. "The statement he issued today articulates important principles but does not present specifics," it said. "We support codification of the net neutrality principles. We oppose a plan that would permit ISPs or other providers to charge consumers for access to 'fast lanes,' which would distribute content more quickly and with better quality."

Not all FCC commissioners are behind Genachowski’s outline.

Commissioner Michael Copps, who has pushed for stronger regulation, said the chairman’s speech is the beginning of a discussion. “It's no secret that I am looking for the strongest protections we can get to preserve an open Internet, built on the most secure legal foundation so we don't find ourselves in court every other month,” he said. “At issue is who will control access to the online experiences of consumers - consumers themselves or Big Phone and Big Cable gatekeepers.”

On the other side, commissioner Robert McDowell said net neutrality rules “would upend three decades of bipartisan and international consensus that the Internet is best able to thrive in the absence of regulation.” He added that the chairman’s plan “smacks more of coercion than consensus or compromise.”

Different entertainment industry and public interest groups, as well as unions have kept a close eye on net neutrality plans. Content providers have highlighted the need to allow broadband providers to fight piracy. And creatives and public interest organizations have argued in favor of an open Internet and expressed fears that if the rules allow web sites to pay ISPs more for faster access, large media players would gain an advantage over independent creators.

Cable and telecom companies, including Comcast, would prefer no net neutrality rules and have suggested Congress, not the FCC, should be in charge.

In 2008, the FCC said Comcast violated federal Internet policy when it blocked or slowed down transmissions by its broadband customers via peer-to-peer file sharing service BitTorrent. This spring, a court sided with Comcast, arguing that the FCC doesn’t have authority.

 “I want to emphasize that moving this item to a vote at the Commission is not designed or intended to preclude action by Congress,” Genachowski said Wednesday. “As always, I welcome the opportunity for the Commission to serve as a resource to Congress.“