Public notice seeks further comments on specialized and wireless services

 As all Network Neutrality aficionados know, last October the Commission took a huge step toward adopting Net Neutrality rules by issuing a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) in which it laid out six principles that would be codified in the FCC’s rules. (Check out our post about the NPRM here.) The proposal was, and remains, ambitious – and subject to considerable debate. That debate is complicated by the fact that Internet-related technological and commercial developments and innovations continue despite, or possibly because of, the pendency of the NPRM.

Apparently responding to some of those developments and innovations, the Commission has now issued an inquiry into two “under-developed issues” in its on-going “Open Internet” deliberations. In particular, the FCC is focusing on how its Open Internet approach should address: (1) certain “specialized” services (referred to in the NPRM as “managed or specialized services”); and (2) mobile wireless platforms.

Much has happened in the 10 months since the NPRM was released. Over and above the tens of thousands of comments which have been submitted in response to the NPRM, the Open Internet approach has been addressed, often contentiously, in Congress, at the FCC, and in countless other public venues. The discussion has been dramatically affected by the D.C. Circuit’s Comcast decision, which undercut the jurisdictional basis for the proposed Open Internet rules.  Chairman Genachowski has announced a novel “Third Way” proposal – not formally adopted by the Commission, but nevertheless supported by two other Commissioners and the FCC’s General Counsel – which might allow the Commission to achieve its Open Internet goals despite the limitations imposed by the Comcast decision. Negotiations have been held among the major players under the auspices of the FCC and Congress. And Verizon and Google have reached agreement on a “Legislative Framework Proposal” (Verizon-Google Proposal) intended, in their words, to “preserve the open Internet”.

With so many moving parts, it’s little wonder that the FCC needs more information.

The Commission’s latest inquiry seems to respond in large measure to two aspects of the Verizon-Google Proposal. According to Verizon and Google: (1) as long as they comply with four general Open Internet principles (relating to consumer protection, transparency, non-discrimination, network management), Internet service providers should be allowed to provide other broadband services that would not be subject to the Open Internet rules; and (2) wireless Internet access service providers should be subject only to the transparency principle at this time. 

Well, isn’t that special?

With respect to the question of “specialized” services, the Commission is concerned that carving out exceptions for such services could undermine the ultimate effectiveness of the Open Internet principles. “Specialized” services include things like subscription video, telemedicine, or business services to enterprise customers. They’re services that are provided over the same last-mile facilities as “broadband Internet access service” (BIAS). They can in many instances look just like the kind of services normally available to the public through standing Internet access. But they are available only to those who sign up, and they typically incur costs beyond ordinary Internet access.

And that’s the problem.

Such “specialized” services can attract important private investment and can provide those willing to pay with new and valued services. There is therefore good reason to foster them by, for example, exempting them from Open Internet principles. In the NPRM the Commission appeared to recognize this and, accordingly, sought comment on how to define such services.

But the Commission is now focusing more on the possible risk that, if providers avail themselves of such an exemption, the whole point of those principles might be defeated. Providers might use the exemption to avoid Open Internet principles with respect to delivery of services that are substantially similar to standard broadband service. Or providers might devote so much of their capacity to such “specialized” services that the incentive and resources to expand standard broadband service would “wither”. The potential for anti-competitive conduct exists as well. And the risk of any of these undesirable consequences would be exacerbated if the public’s choices of Internet broadband service providers are unduly limited.

With these concerns in mind, the Commission suggests six possible approaches:

Definitional Clarity” – This would involve defining BIAS “clearly and perhaps broadly”, with the Open Internet principles applicable to such service. “Specialized” services not subject to the Open Internet principles would be those services with a “different scope or purpose than broadband Internet access service (i.e., which do not meet the definition of broadband Internet access service)”,. This is somewhat similar to the approach suggested in the Verizon-Google Proposal, which characterized the exempt services as “additional or differentiated services . . . distinguishable in scope and purpose from broadband Internet access service”. The main difference, it would appear, is that the FCC is contemplating a more inclusive definition of BIAS that would, presumably, narrow the range of services entitled to the exemption.

Truth in Advertising” – This heading – quoted directly from the FCC’s inquiry – is curious. The Commission’s brief summary under this heading refers to prohibiting providers from marketing “specialized services” as a substitute for BIAS. The Commission also suggests requiring providers to offer BIAS as stand-alone service. It is not clear that either of those suggestions necessarily involves “truth in advertising”.

Disclosure” – This approach would entail the required disclosure, by providers, of information about specialized services, including their effect on capacity and the BIAS market.

Non-exclusivity in Specialized Services” – Commercial arrangements for the offering of specialized services would have to be offered to all qualified parties on the same terms.

Limit Specialized Service Offerings” – Broadband providers would be allowed to offer “only a limited set of new specialized services, with functionality that cannot be provided via broadband Internet access service”. The Commission offers telemedicine as a possible example.

Guaranteed Capacity” for BIAS – Broadband providers would have to keep “providing or expanding” capacity allocated for BIAS regardless of any specialized services offered. Moreover, the provision of specialized services would be prohibited from “inhibiting the performance of broadband Internet access services at any given time, including during periods of peak usage”. Some of these suggestions are strong medicine, although for now, merely a starting point for discussion.

Going mobile

With respect to mobile wireless platforms, the FCC has asked in the NPRM how, to what extent, and when openness principles should be applied. Again, the Commission is concerned about furthering innovation, private investment and competition in the industry. In the most recent inquiry, the Commission seeks to update the record on these questions in light of intervening developments.

The two intervening developments that appear most significant to the Commission are: (1) the Verizon-Google Proposal suggestion that wireless broadband be exempt from all Open Internet principles other than transparency; and (2) the recent rise of wireless pricing plans based on the amount of data the customer uses. The latter, in particular, raises a serious question.

In essence the issue boils down to this. The need for “network management” – i.e,, blocking or slowing traffic – generally increases to the degree that network traffic approaches or exceeds network capacity. If usage-based pricing reduces congestion on wireless networks, will wireless operators have less need to use traffic management techniques that trigger open Internet issues?  

The latest inquiry raises far-reaching questions, and poses potential solutions, that are likely to generate considerable debate. Look for a further influx of commentary, for and against, as the deadline for comments approaches. (As of this writing the deadlines for comments and replies have not been established. Check back to for updates.)

There is two additional intriguing aspects of the latest inquiry (and Chairman Genachowski’s separate statement in support of it). First, according to the notice, the “discussion” triggered by the Open Internet proceeding “appears to have narrowed disagreement on many of the key elements of the framework proposed in the NPRM”. Genachowski’s statement strikes a similar note. It is, of course, impossible to say for sure whether that gloss on the on-going deliberations is accurate. Certainly the Chairman would prefer it to be so. The response to the most recent may or may not tell a different story. 

Second, whenever the comment and reply deadlines happen to be set, the window for replies will not close before November 2. . . which happens to be Election Day. That means that the conclusion of the Open Internet proceeding, once expected by some to be set for September, will not happen before the upcoming election. In view of the high profile the issue of Network Neutrality has had on Capitol Hill – it’s probably no accident that Verizon and Google titled their magnum opus a “Legislative” proposal – an intervening election could have a significant impact on the fate of the Open Internet proceeding.   We shall see.