The Federal Communications Commission today approved a Notice of Inquiry to allow the agency officially to take comments on the state of the Internet and on the need for Net Neutrality.
This is the same Notice of Inquiry that first surfaced late last year and was expected at the time the Commission was to approve AT&T's takeover of BellSouth. Sometimes those deadlines slip.
Officially, these Notices are the first and lowest step in a regulatory process. They are so low that often they are skipped altogether. The purported purpose is so that the FCC can determine whether there's cause to proceed to the next level in the administrative process — the proposed rule.
The Commission's mindset was fairly clear. Chairman Kevin Martin and Commissioners Deborah Taylor Tate and Robert McDowell each made the point that no complaints had been filed. No one wants to regulate based on a theory, as Martin put it. McDowell, of course, is indirectly responsible for the strongest FCC action to date on Net Neutrality, through his recusal in the AT&T deal. But we digress.
PK was not impressed with the Commission action. Here's what we said officially:
“While we welcome the FCC's interest in maintaining an open Internet, we are disappointed that the Commission chose to issue a simple Notice of Inquiry. This bureaucratic process will delay by months if not years the crucial action needed to guarantee that consumers will always have access to an open and non-discriminatory Internet — assuming that it issues a proposed rule after evaluating the information it receives from the inquiry.
“The Commission should recognize that the goal of Net Neutrality is to restore the protections for consumers and content providers that were in effect when the Internet started and which allowed the medium to become what it has today. Simply because telephone and cable companies are on their best behavior today, while the Commission and Congress examine the issue, is no reason to delay action to protect consumers and content providers in the future from the actions of network operators which have said they will split the Internet into a privileged fast lane, and a dirt road for everyone else. Waiting until the network operators have implemented those plans and then trying to regulate after the fact, as some have suggested, will not be effective in protecting consumers and protecting innovation. “
At the same time, the Commission brought wireless broadband into the netherworld of “information services,” subject to the same vague legal standards as wireline broadband.
On that score, we said: “It is also disappointing that the Commission at the same time unfortunately chose this meeting to classify wireless broadband services as 'information services' at the same time it will examine whether the same classification for telephone and cable services is working as promised to benefit consumers and innovation. The Commission should take a broader view of the Internet and move to restore protections on every means consumers have access.”
The point is that the Net Neutrality/Open Internet/Internet Freedom movement wants to restore protections previously taken away. Simply conducting an Inquiry on the state of the industry while the big players are on their best behavior will prove nothing. A case-by-case complaint process will be inefficient at best.
The only thing possibly worse is for the FCC to sit back and appear to be doing something when, in fact, it isn't. That's what happened today.