Net neutrality: A complex topic made simple

Google Inc.’s recently announced plan to set up trial fiber optic networks in the U.S. with ultra-high speed Internet connections puts the long-running national debate over Net neutrality back into high gear. 

A hot topic of discussion and debate in government and telecom circles since at least 2003, Net neutrality, actually involves a broad array of topics, technologies and players. Here’s a primer for those looking to get up to speed fast:

What is Net neutrality’? At its core, the Net neutrality movement in the U.S. refers to efforts to keep the Internet open, accessible and “neutral” to all users, application providers and network carriers. In theory, this means, for example, that one carrier would not be allowed to discriminate against an application written by a third party (such as Google Voice) by requiring its users to rely on the carrier’s own proprietary voice applications. A carrier’s walled-garden browser, which allows access to only certain Web sites, is also not seen as neutral by many neutrality proponents.

Canada’s position

Last year the Canadian Radio-television andTelecommunications Commission dealt with net neutrality in setting out a policyallowing carriers to manage their traffic by slowing certain applications. Thecommission said flatly that carriers cannot block access to content without itspermission, which would only be given in “exceptional circumstances.”Time-sensitive live audio and visual data cannot be slowed without priorconsent because when noticeable degredation occurs it amounts to controllingand influencing the telecommunications. And even though non-time sensitivetraffic can be controlled by operators, if the way it is done controls thetraffic then prior approval is needed.

– Howard Solomon

The term Net neutrality is clearly politically laden. It isn’t used that much by the U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) in its deliberations on the matter. (The FCC is weighing a national broadband policy it hopes to present to Congress next month.) Traditional carriers don’t use the term that much either, since they often argue there is nothing wrong with the openness of the Internet, something Google and a variety of public interest groups dispute.

What is the FCC doing with Net neutrality? The FCC wears many hats, from auctioning off wireless spectrum to administering long distance telephone service to helping set long-term Internet policy. The Net neutrality issue is encapsulated by the FCC in a document issued last Oct. 22: the open Internet “Notice of Proposed Rulemaking” (download PDF) . 
That document has generated comments from many interested parties in the industry. The FCC said in its executive summary (Section 16) that it wanted comments on the “best means of preserving a free and open Internet, however it is accessed.” The agency also lists six principles it hopes to codify in law, including four taken from an Internet Policy Statement first issued by the FCC in 2005. Those four principles are to allow users to: access lawful Internet content; run applications and use services of their choice; run devices of their choice that don’t harm the network; and benefit from competition among carriers, content providers and application providers.
Two newer principles include one that would require service providers to treat all lawful Internet content applications and services in a non-discriminatory manner and another requiring them to disclose information about network management to users as well as content, application and other service providers.
Significantly, FCC Chairman Julius Genachjowski said in a video presentation in October that the proposed rules were “not about regulating the Internet,” a comment that has led to continued debate about what he means (subscription required). 
In fact, the October written notice, in section 14, specifically said: “The rules we propose today address users’ ability to ACCESS the Internet and are not intended to regulate the Internet itself….”
On March 17, the FCC is expected to deliver a formal report to Congress on its National Broadband Plan, which was required in the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009. Progress on the plan is outlined by the FCC at a separate Web site . 
Who are the biggest players in the Net neutrality debate? One group of traditional cable, wireless and telecommunications providers has taken an active role in the debate: , which has posted a list of its members on its e-forum site. The site, which includes short papers on its positions, has one standing headline over a counting clock that reads, “What’s the problem?” The clock notes that more than seven years has gone by “with no need for any Net neutrality mandate!” 
The other big block of players is an array of citizen actions groups loosely aligned with Google and other companies that want to offer new and different uses for the Web but don’t generally run networks carrying Internet data. Google communicates mainly on its official blog, where it announced on Feb. 10 its experimental fiber network . That blog entry includes links to Google’s comments to the FCC from July 2009 where it promoted “open, ubiquitous broadband connectivity” as a means of improving American competitiveness. 
Among various public interest groups active in Net neutrality issues is Free Press, a Washington-based non-profit group that praised Google’s high-speed broadband experiment. It also said Google’s announcement “follows a trail already blazed by Verizon’s FiOS network, which has fiber optic cables capable of speeds comparable to what Google proposes.” 
What’s next? Congress will be the major battleground for Net neutrality, even though it has already taken up bills in recent years that included the Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2007 and measures to protect how various service providers work together in sharing applications and services. The Internet Freedom Preservation Act of 2009, H.R. 3458, may be the broadest, and is now before the House Committee on Energy and Commerce. Sponsored by Rep. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) and 21 co-sponsors, it would amend the Communications Act of 1934, establish a national broadband policy, and safeguard consumer rights.
Markey has called the FCC’s non-discrimination principles a complement to the House bill .
Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen.

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