• Watching the FCC Make Net Neutrality Policy

    Yesterday I ignored the well-worn admonition that "there are two things you don't want to see made - sausage and legislation," by attending the FCC's open meeting on broadband network management at Harvard Law School. The hearing's purpose was to collect more information regarding "net neutrality" to help the FCC develop policy and recommendations on the subject, with a particular focus on what role the FCC should play in determining what are "reasonable" network management practices. As I've said before, net neutrality is very much driven by the surge in broadband video usage.

    I have written two posts on this recently, "Net Neutrality Rears Its Head Again" and "Net Neutrality in 2008? Let's Hope Not," and so my views on the subject are well-known.  For today, I just want to offer some quick observations about the FCC's meeting and what this implies about how the fight over net neutrality is likely to play out.

    The agenda for the day-long session is here. I stayed until the lunch break, so I got a pretty good flavor for the proceedings. On the policy panel I witnessed, all of the non-Comcast/Verizon panelists were in favor of greater government intervention. Despite their articulate views on the subject, one thing that was entirely absent from all of their remarks was any factual data about whether there is currently a market failure necessitating government intervention. Even Vuze CEO Gilles BianRosa, who prior to the panel provide a demo of his company's service, and said his company is playing a "cat and mouse" game trying to stay ahead of Comcast's management practices, did not offer any specific evidence or data of how his company is currently being harmed.

    The law school professors were adamant about stricter government oversight of broadband ISPs seemingly because they just cannot be trusted. Unlike economists who rely on empirical data to formulate their viewpoints, the law school professors seem to rely more on a political philosophy regarding government's role to intervene as their primary guiding logic.

    On the other hand, Comcast's EVP, David Cohen emphatically denied that Comcast blocks any kind of Internet traffic. He allowed that the company manages its networks, just like all other network providers and has six guidelines. Cohen said Comcast only manages traffic during limited periods, in limited geographies, only for upstream traffic, and then only when there's no simultaneous downstream traffic. It only delays traffic, and only when there's real network congestion that needs to be alleviated. All of this would only impact a small number of customers, and only then imperceptibly, Comcast believes. Comcast's goal is "vigilant restraint," with an eye to helping the vast majority of its customers have a superior Internet experience.

    All of this leads me to believe that while Comcast may have the facts on its side, this war will be waged on the PR battlefield. Proponents wrap themselves in the flag, emphasizing the Internet's free-flow of data is paramount to our country's free speech and commerce, while disregarding the fact that to date this has been accomplished with a laissez-faire regulatory policy. Meanwhile network operators like Comcast argue they're already abiding by current regulatory principles and are sufficiently motivated by profit motives to do the right thing. Picking sides, especially in an election year, will be a challenge for all.

    What do you think? Post a comment and let us all know!