Net Neutrality To Be the FCC’s Responsibility? Or Nobody’s Responsibility?

On Monday Sen. Commerce Comittee Chair Ted Stevens told reporters at a press conference that he’s considering charging the FCC with protecting network neutrality. He was speaking at an event sponsored by CompTel, which represents the smaller telecom companies that compete with the big Bells like Verizon and AT&T. For it’s part, CompTel supports legislating network neutrality provisions, since it inherently distrusts the big telcos.

Last Friday FCC Chair Kevin Martin seemed less sanguine about taking on the responsibility for drafting net neutrality rules. But at a telecom industry conference on Tuesday, Martin said that he thinks the FCC already has the authority to address complaints regarding network neutrality.

However Martin also expressed support for “tiering” broadband packages, allowing providers to charge more for richer content. Yet it doesn’t seem clear to me whether Martin is just supporting the idea that a consumer would pay more to get a 10 megabit connection than for a 2 megabit connection, or if he actually supports the ability of AT&T to charge content providers in order to reach households via their internet connections. He might even support the ability for an ISP to charge consumers a higher price to receive internet content from providers that haven’t struck a deal with that ISP. It’s simply not clear.

There’s a crucial difference between these interpretations of “tiering” and because this word is being thrown around so much it’s often difficult to know who’s supporting what.

At that same industry conference, AT&T CEO Ed Whitacre made a bit of a turnaround on the network neutrality issue. The guy who previously said that the likes of Google or Vonage were “nuts” to think they could provide their service “for free” over the broadband lines it provides to consumers, now says that any provider who blocks access to the Internet is inviting customers to find another provider.”

Of course, Whitacre’s AT&T is under the microscope now that it wants to buy BellSouth, and so his willingness to back off shouldn’t be surprising. It also shouldn’t be trusted, since his company’s made lots of promises in the last 10 years it hasn’t kept (I’ve been working on that particular dossier for a couple of weeks and will post it shortly).

What I get out of all of this is that Stevens would love for Congress to do something about network neutrality without actually doing anything about it. What better way to accomplish this but to assign it to the FCC, giving the commission some vague guidelines to follow? That way Stevens gets the consumers groups and Google off his back, and doesn’t piss off his telecom patrons too much.

For his part, Martin probably wouldn’t mind having Congress give him vague guidelines, so that he isn’t responsible for drawing the boundaries and can pass the buck when AT&T starts intruding in a year or two when the heat’s off.

Then it’ll all probably end up in court where Congress and the Commission can absolve themselves of responsibility altogether.




One response to “Net Neutrality To Be the FCC’s Responsibility? Or Nobody’s Responsibility?”

  1. […] Mediageek has a great post questioning FCC Chair Kevin Martin’s support for “tiering”: […]

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