New Round of Talks In Broadband Regulation Debate

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After three days of meetings last week, tech companies and cable and phone nets continued to search for targeted legislation that would clarify the Federal Communications Commission's authority over broadband regulation.

An official announcement about the latest talks, first reported in The Wall Street Journal, was expected this week, but  there was still no word at press time.

Industry players had signaled that the breakdown of FCC-hosted meetings earlier this month, but did not signal the end of the negotiation process. However, backers of the FCC proposal to apply some Title II common carrier regs to broadband transmissions to provide a legal underpinning to overseeing access, network management and transparency called the continued talks just more back-room dealing.

The FCC-hosted talks ended after news that Google and Verizon had come to a meeting of the minds on basic network neutrality principles that included prioritizing traffic through managed services that do not travel over the public Internet and agreeing not to apply most of those principles to wireless broadband.

The Information Technology Industry Council, whose members include Microsoft, Dell and Cisco, are now hosting the talks at their Washington offices, according to sources familiar with the negotiations. Also part of the talks are AT&T, Verizon, Skype and the National Cable & Telecommunications Association.

Microsoft's view on network neutrality has been evolving with the evolution in online services, the company has conceded. It told the FCC last April that with "very few exceptions" Internet access providers had managed their networks reasonably and without "widespread or insurmountable" challenges to an open net. It also was not ready to rule out all forms of discrimination. "[A]doption of unnecessary or insufficiently tailored regulations, such as a prohibition on all types of discrimination, could have 'the unintended consequence of limiting innovation and investment going forward.'"

Reportedly new to the talks is the Communications Workers of America, while Google and the Open Internet Coalition, which had been in the FCC talks, are said by various sources not to be a part of the new discussions. An OIC member company confirmed it had not been invited. Google and CWA spokespeople had not returned calls/e-mails for comment at press time.

CWA has been on the record along with other unions backing targeted legislation as the solution the FCC's regulatory uncertainty, the result of a federal appeals court decision that the FCC had not justified its regulatory smackdown of Comcast over its blocking of peer-to-peer file transfers by BitTorrent.

In its filings on the FCC's so-called "third way" title II reclassification proposal, CWA argued that the approach left unsettled and unsettling legal questions that would result in court challenges and delay. The union supports an open Internet, but also is concerned about job losses if networks are discouraged from investing in their networks.

If a consensus legislative fix fails to materialize, FCC chairman Julius Genachowski has support from his Democratic majority for reclassification and could put the item on the agenda for the FCC's September monthly public meeting, which was moved back a week from Sept. 16 to Sept. 23. October or later, though, may be a more likely date given the pushback from some in Congress on a September move. Since the move does not require issuing new rules, the FCC can simply declare broadband transmissions to be under Title II, rather than have to issue a rulemaking that would require further public comment before a vote.

Free Press called the new talks "no substitute for responsible policymaking." Aparna Sridhar, policy counsel for the group, which also took issue with the FCC-hosted talks, said they not been asked to participate in ITIC-hosted talks. Free Press is a member of OIC, which was at the table for the FCC talks, but it did not have a separate representative, as did fellow OIC members Skype and Google.