FCC chief working on net neutrality proposal

By: Kim Hart
November 18, 2010 04:54 PM EST

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski is putting together a net neutrality proposal and plans to take action on the controversial issue as early as next month, according to several sources with knowledge of the situation.

Details of the proposal being developed by Genachowski's office are unclear, but sources say it could be similar to the deal stakeholders tried to reach with Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) earlier this fall.

The long-running net neutrality debate centers around rules that would require Internet service providers to treat all web traffic equally. Internet companies like Google and Skype want net neutrality rules applied to both wireline and wireless networks, but network operators including AT&T, Verizon and Comcast say they need flexibility to manage web traffic on their lines.

President Barack Obama campaigned on a promise to implement net neutrality rules. Genachowski's plans to carry out that promise were hampered when a federal court ruled the FCC did not have legal authority to adopt the regulations.

Internet and telecom companies have been in trying to reach a compromise on the hot-button issue, first at the FCC over the summer and most recently with Congress. Under the arrangement shepherded b y Waxman, wireline networks would have been subject to net neutrality rules, meaning the biggest telecom companies would not be able to discriminate against any web traffic or content on their traditional wireline networks.

Wireless networks, however, would not have been subject to all of those non-discrimination requirements. The major telecom and Internet stakeholders, as well as several public interest groups, signed onto the deal, but Republicans on Capitol Hill refused to support the draft proposal, especially so close to the mid-term elections.

It now appears Genachowski, after receiving significant pressure from net neutrality advocates and public interest groups to take action after congressional efforts failed, is picking up where Waxman left off.

"We haven't circulated the December agenda," said Jen Howard, spokeswoman for the FCC chairman's office. "These rumors from outside, uniformed sources are pure speculation at best."

Sources say Genachowski and his staff are exploring adding a wireless component to the Waxman proposal, though it is unclear how much farther beyond Waxman's bill the chairman's office will go.

The chairman's proposal may go so far as to prohibit wireless companies from blocking any application, service or device. That would be a big win for public interest groups, who have been pushing for strong net neutrality rules on wireless networks as well as traditional Internet networks.

But the wireless industry is vehemently against a blanket nondiscrimination requirement for their networks, which they say will be overwhelmed by a slew of bandwidth-hogging mobile applications.

The timing of Genachowski's plan is also unclear, although it appears his office is trying to release an outline of the proposal by next Wednesday, which is the deadline to circulate an order to the FCC's other four commissioners before putting it on the agenda for the agency's Dec. 15 meeting.

There are also political reasons for releasing a proposal early next week. Lawmakers will already be gone for the Thanksgiving holiday, giving the FCC a small window to release a controversial order without immediate harsh reactions from Capitol Hill Republicans.

Speaking in San Francisco Wednesday, Genachowski hinted that he had not let net neutrality fall from his priority list.

"That'll happen," Genachowski said of developing net-neutrality rules.

He also said a private deal reached by Google and Verizon in August hindered the FCC's attempts at reaching an agreement on net neutrality, which has dominated telecom policy debates for more than six years.

The Google-Verizon deal "slowed down some processes that were leading to a resolution," he said.

While any net neutrality proposal will cause waves in the telecom world, sources say December is an ideal time for Genachowski to act on the issue because Republicans will not yet have officially assumed control of the House.

Waxman, current chairman of the of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, was interested in reaching a compromise, but the leading Republican contenders for the committee's gavel - Reps. Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.), John Shimkus (R-Ill.) and Joe Barton (R-Texas) - have all voiced strong concern with the FCC's net neutrality plans.

"The FCC's regulatory compass is broken as it continues in its unrelenting pursuit to impose so-called network neutrality regulations, regardless of whether the agency has the legal authority for such a blind power grab," Upton said in a policy memo this month.

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