What’s Inside the New Net Neutrality Rules?

The FCC will vote on new rules governing net neutrality today. Big companies like Verizon and Comcast would love to brush anything related to net neutrality under the rug, since lack thereof allows them to charge tiered rates, control what users see, and gain more ownership of the Internet in general. Many users, on the other hand, want the Internet to stay open, affordable, and available. The Washington Post describes the thrust of the FCC rules:

Under the regulations, companies that carry the Internet into American homes would not be allowed to block Web sites that offer rival services, nor would they be permitted to play favorites by dividing delivery of Internet content into fast and slow lanes.

It means that a cable company such as Comcast could not slow traffic of Netflix video, while a wireless carrier such as Verizon Wireless could not block competing Web voice services, such as Vonage.

So much for that Comcast toll lane.

Nobody’s been able to see the actual FCC order yet, but PCWorld’s Chloe Albanesius was able to get more details from an FCC official. She writes that the FCC order mandates transparancy for wireless and broadband providers, bans providers from blocking content, apps, services, or websites (as long as they’re legal), and that there’s no “unreasonable discrimination rule for fixed broadband providers.” There’s more:

Tiered pricing: The order discusses the issue of broadband providers giving users choice for broadband service, and notes that this could be beneficial for some customers.

Paid Prioritization: The order explains the FCC’s concerns about paid prioritization and says it’s unlikely to be deemed reasonable.

Addressing Complaints: If someone files an unreasonable network management complaint against an ISP…the FCC will then decide whether or not to initiate an inquiry…any complaint…will be addressed quickly under an accelerated timeframe so as not to drag on for months on end.

The FCC is also revising its own power as an agency after being handed its ass in an appeals court ruling this April, in which it lost the right to a 2008 network enforcement against Comcast, according to Albanesius.

It sounds like the regulation against blocking content will be a win for users, while the FCC’s apparent approval of tiered pricing, a model that is already in effect anyway, works for providers. Lacking more detailed information, it seems like the most contentious part of the bill has to do with paid prioritization. It’s counterproductive for the FCC to outlaw that, since the Internet was designed for it (CNET):

(T)he designers of the protocols that make up the modern Internet…In the late 1990s, the Internet Engineering Task Force revised those standards to allow network operators to assign up to 64 different traffic “classes,” meaning priority levels.

A July 1999 IETF specification (RFC 2638) discusses paid prioritization by saying: “It is expected that premium traffic would be allocated a small percentage of the total network capacity, but that it would be priced much higher.” Another specification (RFC 2475) published half a year earlier says that setting different priorities for packets will “accommodate heterogeneous application requirements and user expectations” and “permit differentiated pricing of Internet service.”

Today that concept of “differentiated services” is referred to as DiffServ. It’s part of quality-of-service technologies that companies like AT&T offer, usually to business customers, that rely on DiffServ packet headers to group different types of classes of service together. Real-time voice communication may be ranked the highest, followed by financial transactions, then e-mail, and finally bulk file-transfer protocols that aren’t as sensitive to brief slowdowns.

Why stymie Internet quality for the businesses that sorely need it? Our comparative Internet quality in the US already stinks. There’s no need to make us even less competitive by slamming necessary prioritization setups. Internet access rules should address both consumers and businesses. This particular rule ignores the fact that connective speed and quality aren’t just for better video watching, but for better business operations, too.

If net neutrality is voted in today, and if objections go to the courts, I hope that this is the one issue they sort out.