FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reportedly has devised a Net Neutrality, also known as Open Internet, proposal that would put a portion of an Internet connection under tighter FCC regulation, but would not specifically prohibit paid prioritization. Before being enacted, the proposal would require a vote by the full five-person commission.
Citing unnamed sources, the Wall Street Journal reports that Wheeler wants to classify the connection that broadband providers offer to websites as a common carrier service, putting those connections under tighter FCC scrutiny, while consumers’ Internet connections would continue to be classified as information services that are not so tightly regulated.
The proposal is likely to come under fire from broadband providers, who don’t want Internet connectivity to be regulated and from consumer groups, who will likely say the proposal doesn’t go far enough to protect consumers.
The proposal makes sense in that when broadband providers have discussed the possibility of paid prioritization, their target market has been content providers rather than end users. According to the WSJ report, the proposal would give the FCC the ability to “police” any deals between content companies and broadband providers.
The article notes that the proposal leaves the door open for broadband providers to offer specialized services for videogamers or online video providers aimed at improving the quality of the connection to the end user. The WSJ article suggests these services might give the content providers additional bandwidth. But based on the ongoing industry discussion on this topic, such services might instead focus on offering a different class of service that prioritizes data packets coming from the content providers.
In either case, the plan raises important questions about Internet traffic exchange, which has been an equally hot topic over the last couple of years.
Net Neutrality and Peering
The quality of the end user experience depends not only on bandwidth and packet priority but also on the quality of the connection between the broadband provider serving the end user and the broadband provider serving the content provider.
These interconnection agreements have been largely out of FCC control and there have been numerous disputes over the last couple of years between the two different types of providers. Some of the providers serving consumers – including large telcos like Verizon and large cablecos like Comcast – have required providers serving content companies to pay interconnection fees because they send more traffic to the consumers than they receive from the consumers. The providers serving the content companies say they shouldn’t have to pay interconnection fees if they deliver traffic to a point close to the end consumer, requiring the consumer broadband provider to carry traffic only for a relatively short distance.
It’s unclear from the brief description of the proposal in the WSJ article whether the proposal would give the FCC oversight over Internet interconnection agreements. It’s also unclear how the FCC would regulate content providers such as Netflix that operate their own content delivery networks, delivering traffic directly to consumer broadband providers.
But these are important questions that will need to be answered.