Is Net Neutrality Back on the Table?

Just when you thought it was safe to get back in the water, rumor has it that the FCC will take action on net neutrality at the December open meeting. According to Tech Daily Dose, an FCC source says:

“Net Neutrality is about preventing anyone from regulating the Internet,” an FCC official said. “There are some cable and phone companies out there that want to decide which apps you should get on your phone, which Internet sites you should look at, and what online videos you can download. That’s regulating the Internet — and that’s what the FCC is trying to stop.”

The consensus of the rumors is that Chairman Genachowski will circulate an order next Wednesday calling for a Title I-based framework based on the Waxman compromise. The virtue of this approach is that it builds on the process that’s been ongoing for the past 8 months, before being derailed by the election.

The technical part of this issue relates to the exact language of the anti-discrimination rule. There’s a disconnect between the way the broadband networks that enable the Internet deal with application diversity and how the Internet itself deals with the problem.

The general tendency is for the Internet to defer the management that makes application diversity (the fact that applications have diverse requirements depending on how closely they interact with the eye, ear, and brain) possible to the private networks that comprise the Internet. The Internet standards have nothing to say about commercial agreements among network operators, very little to say about terms of service between operators and their customers, of course. And the issues about what apps you can run on your iPhone are decided by Apple and its developers rather than by AT&T and Orange, of course. But when we look at what’s involved in streaming videos to a smartphone, there are a host of players as well as a host of commercial agreements in play.

People who’ve tried to forecast what Chairman Genachowski is going to do have been burned in the past, as he tends to send mixed signals before producing his orders. It’s almost like he enjoys seeing the lobbyists twist themselves into pretzel shapes while he’s dotting his i’s and crossing his t’s. About the only thing that’s clear at this point is that some of the so-called public interest advocates are going to be upset, as are some of the network operators. Nuanced orders tend to drive wedges in otherwise monolithic interest groups.