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Chairman Genachowski’s “Third Way” to Net Neutrality

The press is buzzing with news, leaked late yesterday and announced today in a document entitled The Third Way: A Narrowly Tailored Broadband Framework, that FCC Chairman Genachowski is proposing to reclassify the transmission component of broadband Internet access as a “telecommunications service” subject to FCC regulation. As almost everyone in the telecom world knows, the US Court of Appeals recently found that the FCC does not have direct jurisdiction to impose “network neutrality” rules as long as it classifies broadband as just an “information service.”

With the Chairman’s support, three of the five FCC Commissioners now favor reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service, a first step towards adopting network neutrality rules.

For broadcasters, the net effect of net neutrality rules isn’t as easy to assess as it may at first seem. As producers and distributors of broadband and mobile services, net neutrality rules should assure broadcasters that their content will not be blocked or unfairly degraded by broadband network operators. Broadcasters that provide mobile news apps and operate rich media web sites have the same general interest in nondiscriminatory network access as do Internet behemoths like Google, Amazon and eBay.

On the other hand, broadband providers have argued convincingly that their networks are extremely expensive to build and that they must have flexibility to manage Internet traffic on their networks to assure a good quality of service to their subscribers. If the FCC limits broadband operators’ ability to manage traffic, those operators may have to upgrade their infrastructure, raising costs to web publishers and end users alike.

Mobile network operators assert that network neutrality rules could have proportionally greater adverse effects on them. Mobile network capacity is generally more costly and less robust than that of copper and fiber networks. If network neutrality rules increase the load on mobile networks and limit the ability of network operators to manage that traffic, their arguments that they need more spectrum to meet growing demand may be more convincing.

At this stage, no one knows how any proposed network neutrality rules would treat mobile broadband operators. However, it is plausible that aggressive network neutrality rules could increase the load on mobile networks, and mobile operators are sure to argue that they will need more spectrum to respond.

With broadcast spectrum already squarely in the sights of the same FCC that is now proposing to impose network neutrality rules, broadcasters should pay close attention to this debate.