FCC to Impose “Net Neutrality” Rules?

Okay, is anyone else here confused?

On Monday, the Washington Post ran a story that stated “The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission has indicated he wants to keep broadband services deregulated”. That’s pretty clear, though it left some people scratching their heads a bit. Chairman Genachowski “swept into his job pledging to protect ‘net neutrality'” according to a story Monday in the Wall Street Journal.

So today the Journal has a story declaring that ” the federal government plans to propose regulating broadband lines under decades-old rules designed for traditional phone networks.” What gives?

Now, I don’t usually cover breaking news here, as I prefer to let some of it age before I submit it for scrutiny. (And that’s one reason that I didn’t write up the FFC chair’s apparent capitulation to the Internet service providers (ISPs) based on Monday’s news.) It appears that Chairman Genachowski has now leaned in the opposite direction, and cast his vote with the two other Democratic committee members in favor of pursuing greater regulation for ISPs.

Why do I even mention this in an HDTV publication? It’s big news that could have significant impact on what you watch and where you watch it. Without greater regulation — similar to what our telephone carriers are subject to already — ISPs like cable and telephone companies could choose to give data packets from different sources different treatment. This is a real possibility, given Comcast’s recent court victory over its slowing traffic for subscribers who were downloading lots of data from BitTorrent sites. Without regulations, it might not be illegal for one company to slow down data streams from a competitor. It also might not be illegal to give preferential treatment to certain data streams from partners.

This could create serious problems for services such as Skype, Hulu, or Netflix’s streaming movies, where the quality of their service could be arbitrarily affected by the ISPs. So I believe that it is good news for consumers that the FCC is going to step up and defend net neutrality so that everyone gets equal access to the Internet connections. Without this, companies might not have the opportunity to try to deliver the benefits that we could get from video delivered over the Internet. I do expect the ISPs to resist this decision, though I think one reasonable outcome is to simply charge users for the amount of bandwidth that they use, the same way that cell phone providers measure minutes for their subscriptions.