FCC to Tackle Internet Rules

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski announced that the Commission will kick off a rulemaking proceeding on Internet regulation shortly, as soon as the formality of a vote is completed. The long-anticipated announcement has more to do with cleaning up the state of Internet regulation, which the previous chairman left in a bit of a mess. The FCC is supposed to make rules in public proceedings before enforcing them, but the previous commission slapped Comcast's wrists with a set of rules that it had declared unenforceable when they were written, the Four Freedoms that make up the Internet Policy Statement. 

As expected, the Genachowski announced that he intends to propose an anti-discrimination rule and a transparency rule. These had been considered mutually exclusive, so the combination is a bit of a surprise.

As the purpose of the speech was to announce the rule making procedure and not the precise nature of the rules themselves, it wasn't the most stirring piece of oratory. There were some curious moments early in the narrative when the chairman walked through the history of ARPANET and touted the architectural wonder of the Internet (the speech is on a new web site the FCC created today, openinternet.gov):

Historian John Naughton describes the Internet as an attempt to answer the following question: How do you design a network that is “future proof” -- that can support the applications that today’s inventors have not yet dreamed of? The solution was to devise a network of networks that would not be biased in favor of any particular application. The Internet’s creators didn’t want the network architecture -- or any single entity -- to pick winners and losers. Because it might pick the wrong ones. Instead, the Internet’s open architecture pushes decision-making and intelligence to the edge of the network -- to end users, to the cloud, to businesses of every size and in every sector of the economy, to creators and speakers across the country and around the globe. In the words of Tim Berners-Lee, the Internet is a “blank canvas” -- allowing anyone to contribute and to innovate without permission.

While this is pretty much standard Internet mythology, it's not accurate enough for regulatory work. Network engineers know that no single-service network, which is what the Internet has become post-BGP, can ever be application neutral. The Internet's best-effort delivery service is fine for generic content applications like the Web, and much less fine for real-time services and for high bandwidth content applications like P2P file sharing. There is no such thing as a truly neutral network, and we can only approach neutrality to the extent that the network can tailor delivery services to the needs of applications. That's why we have Quality of Service logic in IEEE 802 LANs, WLANs, WPANs, and WWANs. One-size-fits-all is a myth. A network with no QoS does pick winners and losers, make no mistake about it.

The chairman's lack of precision is par for the course in political circles, but there's a significant danger to innovation from trying to apply these metaphoric descriptions too literally. When your network has a structural bias in favor of a particular class of applications, it needs to permit management practices to overcome it. It's not clear that the FCC has the digital chops to appreciate this.

So the shoe has finally dropped and the FCC is on the road to fulfilling President Obama's campaign promise to protect the open Internet. This could result in clarity, certainty, and a good environment for investment, or it could degenerate into a circus as the Comcast proceeding did in 2008. Chairman Genachowski is a bright and earnest public servant, the odds are better than even money that the rulemaking will not do significant harm, but you never know how these things will turn out until the votes are counted. Those of us who do network engineering for a living need to keep a close watch on this proceeding.

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