MMTC Panelists Push Sec. 706

Argue It's Best to Continue Investment, Innovation in ‘Net

The Minority Media & Telecommunications Council forum on network neutrality rules on Capitol Hill Tuesday might as easily have been a meeting of the "Friends of Sec. 706" club. Not a discouraging word was heard about that option for restoring Open Internet rules thrown out by the court, though a Title II reclassification option came in for plenty of criticism.

That outcome was not a surprise given that the participants were all card-carrying fans of a light regulatory touch that they say is what has created innovation and investment in the broadband space.

The focus was advertised as ""Title II Versus Section 706: Identifying the Regulatory Framework that Furthers the Goals of Broadband Adoption, Competition, and Deployment."

Their conclusion, arguably foregone, was that it was Sec. 706 that best did the job.

Hal Singer, principal, Economists Incorporated, said that he did not support slow lanes if it meant degrading service for those who did not agree to pay for a fast lane. But he said that not all discrimination was bad, and to write rules that would ban it would prevent the sort of beneficial discrimination that prioritizes telemedicine over videos of kittens playing with balls of yarn. He said he wanted to "zap" anticompetitive discrimination, rather than ban all forms, some of which are beneficial.

MMTC's Nicol Turner-Lee said the council has not advocated for fast lanes either.

Regulatory and financial consultant Anna-Maria Kovacs, with Georgetown's Center for Business and Public Policy, said that some level of prioritization is "essential" to the Internet, Diana Carew from the Progressive Policy Institute argued, though no one was arguing with her, that legislators had decided not to regulate ISP's as utilities in the 1996 Telecommunications Act, and that the result was that it had opened up investment and enabled the birth of high-speed broadband.

Carew said that cable and telco ISPs are driving investment in America's productive capacity, and that Sec. 706 "probably" continues that trend.

A Hill staffer broke into the proceedings with a question challenging the theory that a case-by-case Sec. 706 approach was sufficient. He said that Comcast and Verizon had blocked content and that common carrier regs were how monopolies were dealt with.

Singer said that nobody was proposing allowing blocking or throttling.

Timothy Robinson, senior policy counsel to Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill,), said his boss thought the marketplace could keep the market in check. He said ISPs run the "large risk" of alienating customers if they degrade, block or throttle. He said while some argue the temptation to those ISPs is too great, there had been few documented events. He said it was possible there were others consumers not complaining about (net neutrality activists argue many would not know about them TO complain), but he said the problem does not appear to be pervasive or one that has "run amok."

He said looking at the investment in the space absent regulation was a "testament to the importance of light-handed regulation."

As for Title II the panelists argued it would not prevent paid prioritization, but it might prevent investment in broadband deployment or innovation in wireless broadband, which overindexes for minorities--the FCC is at least considering extending wired broadband Open Internet rules to wireless.

Allison Remsen, executive director of Mobile Future, said that would be a bad idea, that wireless has different network management issues--some video downloads potentially delaying phone calls to the doctor, for example, and that regulation could make it harder for wireless companies to provide low-cost service to the minority populations who disproportionately use it to access the Web.

Singer set Net neutrality had become a Trojan horse activists were using to re-fight the wars of 1990's and force ISPs to share networks at regulated rates.

Justin-Velez Hagan, president of the Puerto Rican Chamber of Commerce, emphasized the investment impact. He said that his members were having a hard time getting investment capital for ISPs or complimentary services in Puerto Rico because of the uncertainty in Washington. He said he thought a Title II approach would limit investment, but so too is the uncertainty about how rules will be crafted.

There is also plenty of uncertainty about how rules will hold up under the inevitable legal challenges no matter which way the FCC decides.

Singer suggested that that there was a false symmetry to the legal threat. He argued that since the D.C. court gave the FCC a blueprint for restoring rules under Sec. 706, if the FCC followed it, he did not see the case against it, though he assumed activists would try and make it. As for Title II, he said, the ISP's could say the FCC was trying to regulate it like a monopoly when the FCC's own figures show that except in a handful of markets, there are at least two broadband providers not counting wireless. He suggested that that case was much stronger.

"Title II provides thousands of excuses to go to court," said Kovacs.