FCC Drops Industry Talks on Plan for Net Neutrality

The war over Net neutrality is entering a new phase, with an announcement Thursday by the Federal Communications Commission that it is discontinuing efforts to reach a deal with large web and telecommunications companies on a plan to send to Congress. The breakdown comes just as reports broke Thursday that Google, a leader in advocating an open Internet, had reached an agreement with Verizon about ways to offer better service to some of its customers.

This ability to favor some content and applications over others, possibly divided by those who can pay for better access and those who cannot, is the core battle in Net neutrality. To date, the Internet experience has been that all sites have equal access to bandwidth, even if the speed of a site’s servers and other factors differ.

‘Tighter Boundaries’ in FCC Talks

According to The Washington Post, the now-discontinued FCC/industry negotiations had led to agreement on a variety of issues, including what the paper described as “tighter boundaries for managing web traffic than those agreed upon by Verizon and Google, according to sources familiar with the meetings.”

In the wake of a storm of criticism that descended on both Google and Verizon, the FCC is faced with having to move as quickly as it can, or face a de facto industry arrangement. Some industry observers are saying that Google, which has been a champion of Net neutrality and an open Internet, only intends to agree to service-level agreements on content that requires quick delivery, such as real-time medical files and communications, and leave all else to voluntary arrangements.

One question is whether the FCC will now attempt to regulate Net neutrality with its rules, or if that fight will be in Congress — or both. In mid-June, the agency released what Chairman Julius Genachowski described as a “Third Way” plan to reclassify Internet service in order to achieve universal access and to “protect and empower consumers.”

Currently, the agency is receiving comments on the plan, which reclassifies wired broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service and leaves Internet content and applications largely unregulated. Some companies, such as eBay, Amazon, various consumer groups — and Google — have been backing the FCC, while phone and cable companies are largely opposed.

If the FCC does assert that regulatory power, it might be able to regulate Net neutrality directly.

Worried about ‘Few Powerful Companies’

At the time of the plan’s release, Democratic FCC member Michael Copps said the FCC needed “to reclaim our authority.” He added that he was “worried about relying only on the goodwill of a few powerful companies to achieve this country’s broadband hopes and dreams.”

In opposition to the move, Republican member Meredith Baker said “industry alone will not solve every challenge, and no commercial market is perfect, but I fear a more proactive broadband regulatory approach would adversely affect consumers, competition and investment.”

In early May, Genachowski announced that the FCC intended to reclassify broadband service as a telecommunications service, but only apply some of the regulations that apply to telecommunications.

The move came following an April judgment by a federal court concerning the FCC’s authority over Comcast as an Internet provider. The ruling found that the agency had much more limited authority under the current classification of Net providers as “information services” than had been widely assumed.