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FCC's new net neutrality proposal: What do we really know?

Grant Gross | April 29, 2014
When the U.S. Federal Communications Commission announced its proposal to reinstate new net neutrality regulations that would allow broadband providers to engage in commercially reasonable traffic management, the agency set off a firestorm of protest from digital rights groups, Internet commentators and bloggers.

Why does the new proposal change the way it deals with unreasonable traffic discrimination?

Wheeler and other FCC officials say they are following the guidance from the January ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit, which suggested that the FCC's past prohibition of unreasonable network management was a blanket rule that looked too much like old, common-carrier telephone regulations.

Will the new proposal allow broadband providers to charge Web services for faster speeds to end users?

The FCC will take a hard look at attempts to engage in pay-for-priority traffic schemes, officials have said. It's unclear what that means, exactly. There are also a couple of caveats: The agency doesn't plan to ban all pay-for-priority business models, because, in some cases, consumers may want some Web traffic to be a higher priority. A Web-based heart monitor was one example an FCC official gave.

The net neutrality rules also won't cover traffic exchange arrangements, also called peering agreements, that are in wide use today, FCC officials have said. Peering agreements cover all types of traffic exchanges, but the definition of what's a peering agreement and what's a pay-for-priority deal gets a little fuzzy at the edges.

In January, Netflix, under protest, signed a traffic agreement with Comcast, the largest broadband provider in the U.S., but Netflix executives have called for stronger net neutrality rules that would eliminate the need for the company to pay broadband providers for faster speeds. Many critics have echoed Netflix's concerns.

Are there other concerns about the FCC proposal?

There are, and one of the biggest remaining concerns is that the FCC proposes to handle complaints about unreasonable traffic management on a case-by-case basis. FCC officials again point to the appeals court decision as grounds for taking complaints one by one, but critics say that approach will leave customers and Web businesses confused about what's allowed and what isn't.

The definition of what's commercially reasonable could also change over time. The FCC currently has a Democratic majority that's sympathetic to net neutrality advocates, but a future Republican president could appoint a majority that's more hostile to those regulations.


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