The U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on Thursday launched an inquiry into how broadband providers manage their traffic, again getting involved in a debate over network neutrality.
The FCC voted to launch a notice of inquiry that would also examine whether broadband providers charge different prices for different speeds, whether FCC policies should distinguish between content providers that charge end users for access and those who do not, and how consumers are affected by the ways broadband providers manage their networks.
During the past two years, e-commerce companies and several consumer groups have pushed the U.S. Congress for a law that would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing Web content from competitors or from speeding up partners’ content. Broadband providers such as AT&T and Verizon Communications opposed a net neutrality law, saying it would limit potential business plans and discourage them from rolling out new services.
The FCC first created a largely unenforced policy statement on Internet consumer rights in 2005, including the right to access any legal content and attach any legal devices. The new inquiry would look at whether the FCC should include some kind of net neutrality language in that policy statement.
The inquiry will help the FCC stay informed about possible discriminatory practices, said Kevin Martin, FCC chairman. “Although we are not aware of any current blocking situations, the commission remains vigilant in protecting consumers’ access to content on the Internet,” he said. “The commission is ready, willing and able to step in if necessary.”
Public Knowledge, a consumer rights group and supporter of a net neutrality law, said it was disappointed that the FCC didn’t take more concrete action than a notice of inquiry.
“This bureaucratic process will delay by months, if not years, the crucial action needed to guarantee that consumers will always have access to an open and nondiscriminatory Internet—assuming that it issues a proposed rule after evaluating the information it receives from the inquiry,” Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, wrote in an e-mail. “The commission should recognize that the goal of Net Neutrality is to restore the protections for consumers and content providers that were in effect when the Internet started and which allowed the medium to become what it has today.”
In mid-2005, the FCC and the U.S. Supreme Court freed broadband providers from nondiscriminatory carriage rules, and net neutrality backers say large broadband providers will now be tempted to provide tiered speeds based on which Internet companies pay them the most.
The FCC shouldn’t wait until there’s major evidence of blocking content before taking action, she added.
“Simply because telephone and cable companies are on their best behavior today, while the Commission and Congress examine the issue, is no reason to delay action to protect consumers and content providers in the future from the actions of network operators which have said they will split the Internet into a privileged fast lane, and a dirt road for everyone else,” she wrote.
-Grant Gross, IDG News Service (Washington Bureau)
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