The kinder, gentler FCC got a little rougher and more circumspect last week as the mutual admiration society that characterized the first weeks of the new chairman's tenure ran up against the first big policy call. That would be Julius Genachowski's announcement that he was pursuing codified network neutrality rules, and will almost certainly get them. The result was a cordial but clear shot from Republicans at the chairman's goals of communications and data-driven policy-making, and a clear division of Democrats and Republicans over the issue, a hot button from a couple of years ago that has heated up again, big time.
It is not a surprise that a liberal Democratic president who supported network neutrality legislation, and an FCC chairman who helped him develop a communications policy that included pledges of an open Internet, might take steps to expand and toughen FCC enforcement of access principles. Still, some hoped for more tempering of that position, given the once-in-a-lifetime (we hope) economic meltdown and the need to stimulate broadband deployment to create jobs and connect job seekers to them.
That, say network operators, requires billions of dollars, an investment that could be chilled by regulations that provide too much of a governor on that economic engine by making it more difficult to run networks or removing incentives for investing in new ones.
There is still plenty of time for public input on the rules; don't look for anything in the rule books before next year. But with the two Democrat commissioners solidly in the chairman's camp, and everyone from Nancy Pelosi to Barack Obama singing the praises of codified network neutrality rules, the battleground will be not whether, but how, the rules are structured.
Chief among the calls the FCC has to make are what qualifies as reasonable network management. If that definition is too restrictive, investment will be constricted as well.
As almost everyone agreed last week, an open and accessible Internet is in everyone's interest. But as anyone who has tried to download a big file also knows, there are a lot of us out there and only so much bandwidth to go around.
On the plus side of the announcement, the chairman made it clear that the openness protections he advocates apply only to legal content, not pirated material. The chairman also took the unusual step of reaching out to concerned Republican lawmakers; he even got them to step down from an immediate effort to block his proposal before he had officially made it. So collegiality is still alive, though the same lawmakers said their gambit was only on hold.
We will have to see the actual proposal, due out in October, before making a call on this one. We must point out, however, that innovation doesn't all come from garages, and the government, either the FCC or Congress, would be ill-advised to do anything that would work against investment in broadband, even in the name of the aptly vaunted free and open Internet.