New FCC Rules Should Benefit VoIP Providers and Users

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski

In a major policy address on the broad topic of “net neutrality” delivered Monday at the Brookings Institution in Washington, DC, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski described clearly his belief in the commission’s responsibility “to preserve a free and open Internet” – and proposed new rules that should be a boon to both users and providers of VoIP technologies.

Focusing on the fact of the Internet as “something profoundly successful” that “will benefit both consumers and businesses” only if its original open architecture is maintained, Genachowski said he will ask the commission to adopt as rules the “Four Freedoms” first articulated by Chairman Michael Powell in 2004, in addition to two additional principles Genachowski called “non-discrimination” and “transparency.”

“The fact that the Internet is evolving rapidly does not mean we can, or should, abandon the underlying values fostered by an open network, or the important goal of setting rules of the road to protect the free and open Internet,” the Chairman said. But he cautioned “there are compelling reasons to be concerned about the future of openness.”

He noted that “we have witnessed certain broadband providers unilaterally block access to VoIP applications (phone calls delivered over data networks) and implement technical measures that degrade the performance of peer-to-peer software distributing lawful content.”

Because limited competition among service providers and the economic incentives of broadband providers means that “providers’ rational bottom-line interests may diverge from the broad interests of consumers” in competition and choice, Genachowski said he believes “the FCC must be a smart cop on the beat preserving a free and open Internet.”

The two new rules Genachowski will propose the commission adopt – non-discrimination and transparency – should level the playing field for VoIP by requiring that “broadband providers cannot discriminate against particular Internet content or applications.”

Under the new rules, providers would not be permitted to block or degrade lawful traffic over their networks, “or pick winners by favoring some content or applications over others.” Genachowski believes it would be unfair to allow providers to disfavor an Internet service just because it competes with a similar service offered by that broadband provider: “The Internet must continue to allow users to decide what content and applications succeed.”

Similarly, the Chairman acknowledged that the explosion of traffic on the Internet – with total data now doubling on a roughly two-year cycle – means that technology is also evolving to allow providers evermore sophisticated methods for managing that traffic.

“Today, broadband providers have the technical ability to change how the Internet works for millions of users — with profound consequences for those users and content, application, and service providers around the world,” he said.

As a result, Genachowski believes the FCC should require providers of broadband Internet access be transparent about their network management practices, without disclosing personal information about subscribers or information that might compromise network security or competitively sensitive data.

The principles Genachowski affirmed Monday must still wend their way through the FCC’s public comment period and its sometimes lengthy rulemaking process before they become the law of the land. But for VoIP providers and other advocates of an unfettered Internet, the Chairman’s policy address is the clearest, most welcome indication yet of the government’s intention to preserve fair and open access.