FCC Files Open Internet Final Rule

by admin on Sep.22, 2011, under Uncategorized

Selections from the FCC’s Final Rule in the Open Internet Proceeding, filed with the Federal Register today:

SUMMARY: This Report and Order establishes protections for broadband service to preserve and reinforce Internet freedom and openness. The Commission adopts three basic protections that are grounded in broadly accepted Internet norms, as well as our own prior decisions. First, transparency: fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and commercial terms of their broadband services. Second, no blocking: fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services. Third, no unreasonable discrimination: fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic. These rules, applied with the complementary principle of reasonable network management, ensure that the freedom and openness that have enabled the Internet to flourish as an engine for creativity and commerce will continue. This framework thus provides greater certainty and predictability to consumers, innovators, investors, and broadband providers, as well as the flexibility providers need to effectively manage their networks. The framework promotes a virtuous circle of innovation and investment in which new uses of the network—including new content, applications, services, and devices—lead to increased end-user demand for broadband, which drives network improvements that in turn lead to further innovative network uses.

DATES: Effective Date: These rules are effective November 20, 2011.

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Synopsis of the Order 

I. PRESERVING THE FREE AND OPEN INTERNET

In this Order the Commission takes an important step to preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation, investment, job creation, economic growth, competition, and free expression. To provide greater clarity and certainty regarding the continued freedom and openness of the Internet, we adopt three basic rules that are grounded in broadly accepted Internet norms, as well as our own prior decisions:

i. Transparency. Fixed and mobile broadband providers must disclose the network management practices, performance characteristics, and terms and conditions of their broadband services;

ii. No blocking. Fixed broadband providers may not block lawful content, applications, services, or non-harmful devices; mobile broadband providers may not block lawful websites, or block applications that compete with their voice or video telephony services; and

iii. No unreasonable discrimination. Fixed broadband providers may not unreasonably discriminate in transmitting lawful network traffic.

We believe these rules, applied with the complementary principle of reasonable network management, will empower and protect consumers and innovators while helping ensure that the Internet continues to flourish, with robust private investment and rapid innovation at both the core and the edge of the network. This is consistent with the National Broadband Plan goal of broadband access that is ubiquitous and fast, promoting the global competitiveness of the United States.

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We recognize that broadband providers may offer other services over the same last-mile connections used to provide broadband service. These “specialized services” can benefit end users and spur investment, but they may also present risks to the open Internet. We will closely monitor specialized services and their effects on broadband service to ensure, through all available mechanisms, that they supplement but do not supplant the open Internet.

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II. THE NEED FOR OPEN INTERNET PROTECTIONS

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A. The Internet’s Openness Promotes Innovation, Investment, Competition, Free Expression, and Other National Broadband Goals

Like electricity and the computer, the Internet is a “general purpose technology” that enables new methods of production that have a major impact on the entire economy. The Internet’s founders intentionally built a network that is open, in the sense that it has no gatekeepers limiting innovation and communication through the network.3 Accordingly, the Internet enables an end user to access the content and applications of her choice, without requiring permission from broadband providers. This architecture enables innovators to create and offer new applications and services without needing approval from any controlling entity, be it a network provider, equipment manufacturer, industry body, or government agency. End users benefit because the Internet’s openness allows new technologies to be developed and distributed by a broad range of sources, not just by the companies that operate the network. For example, Sir Tim Berners-Lee was able to invent the World Wide Web nearly two decades after engineers developed the Internet’s original protocols, without needing changes to those protocols or any approval from network operators. Startups and small businesses benefit because the Internet’s openness enables anyone connected to the network to reach and do business with anyone else, allowing even the smallest and most remotely located businesses to access national and global markets, and contribute to the economy through e-commerce4 and online advertising.5 Because Internet openness enables widespread innovation and allows all end users and edge providers (rather than just the significantly smaller number of broadband providers) to create and determine the success or failure of content, applications, services, and devices, it maximizes commercial and non-commercial innovations that address key national challenges—including improvements in health care, education, and energy efficiency that benefit our economy and civic life.

The Internet’s openness is critical to these outcomes, because it enables a virtuous circle of innovation in which new uses of the network—including new content, applications, services, and devices—lead to increased end-user demand for broadband, which drives network improvements, which in turn lead to further innovative network uses. Novel, improved, or lower-cost offerings introduced by content, application, service, and device providers spur enduser demand and encourage broadband providers to expand their networks and invest in new broadband technologies.6 Streaming video and e-commerce applications, for instance, have led to major network improvements such as fiber to the premises, VDSL, and DOCSIS 3.0. These network improvements generate new opportunities for edge providers, spurring them to innovate further.7 Each round of innovation increases the value of the Internet for broadband providers, edge providers, online businesses, and consumers. Continued operation of this virtuous circle, however, depends upon low barriers to innovation and entry by edge providers, which drive enduser demand. Restricting edge providers’ ability to reach end users, and limiting end users’ ability to choose which edge providers to patronize, would reduce the rate of innovation at the edge and, in turn, the likely rate of improvements to network infrastructure. Similarly, restricting the ability of broadband providers to put the network to innovative uses may reduce the rate of improvements to network infrastructure.

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B. Broadband Providers Have the Incentive and Ability to Limit Internet Openness

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The record in this proceeding reveals that broadband providers potentially face at least three types of incentives to reduce the current openness of the Internet. First, broadband providers may have economic incentives to block or otherwise disadvantage specific edge providers or classes of edge providers, for example by controlling the transmission of network traffic over a broadband connection, including the price and quality of access to end users. A broadband provider might use this power to benefit its own or affiliated offerings at the expense of unaffiliated offerings.

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Second, broadband providers may have incentives to increase revenues by charging edge providers, who already pay for their own connections to the Internet, for access or prioritized access to end users. Although broadband providers have not historically imposed such fees, they have argued they should be permitted to do so. A broadband provider could force edge providers to pay inefficiently high fees because that broadband provider is typically an edge provider’s only option for reaching a particular end user.17 Thus broadband providers have the ability to act as gatekeepers.18

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Third, if broadband providers can profitably charge edge providers for prioritized access to end users, they will have an incentive to degrade or decline to increase the quality of the service they provide to non-prioritized traffic. This would increase the gap in quality (such as latency in transmission) between prioritized access and non-prioritized access, induce more edge providers to pay for prioritized access, and allow broadband providers to charge higher prices for prioritized access. Even more damaging, broadband providers might withhold or decline to expand capacity in order to “squeeze” non-prioritized traffic, a strategy that would increase the likelihood of network congestion and confront edge providers with a choice between accepting low-quality transmission or paying fees for prioritized access to end users.

Moreover, if broadband providers could block specific content, applications, services, or devices, end users and edge providers would lose the control they currently have over whether other end users and edge providers can communicate with them through the Internet. Content, application, service, and device providers (and their investors) could no longer assume that the market for their offerings included all U.S. end users. And broadband providers might choose to implement undocumented practices for traffic differentiation that undermine the ability of developers to create generally usable applications without having to design to particular broadband providers’ unique practices or business arrangements.25

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C. Broadband Providers Have Acted to Limit Openness

These dangers to Internet openness are not speculative or merely theoretical. Conduct of this type has already come before the Commission in enforcement proceedings.

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These practices have occurred notwithstanding the Commission’s adoption of open Internet principles in the Internet Policy Statement; enforcement proceedings against Madison River Communications and Comcast for their interference with VoIP and P2P traffic, respectively; Commission orders that required certain broadband providers to adhere to open Internet obligations; longstanding norms of Internet openness; and statements by major broadband providers that they support and are abiding by open Internet principles.

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D. The Benefits of Protecting the Internet’s Openness Exceed the Costs

Widespread interference with the Internet’s openness would likely slow or even break the virtuous cycle of innovation that the Internet enables, and would likely cause harms that may be irreversible or very costly to undo. For example, edge providers could make investments in reliance upon exclusive preferential arrangements with broadband providers, and network management technologies may not be easy to change.38 If the next revolutionary technology or business is not developed because broadband provider practices chill entry and innovation by edge providers, the missed opportunity may be significant, and lost innovation, investment, and competition may be impossible to restore after the fact. Moreover, because of the Internet’s role as a general purpose technology, erosion of Internet openness threatens to harm innovation, investment in the core and at the edge of the network, and competition in many sectors, with a disproportionate effect on small, entering, and non-commercial edge providers that drive much of the innovation on the Internet.39

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There is no evidence that prior open Internet obligations have discouraged investment;41 and numerous commenters explain that, by preserving the virtuous circle of innovation, open Internet rules will increase incentives to invest in broadband infrastructure. Moreover, if permitted to deny access, or charge edge providers for prioritized access to end users, broadband providers may have incentives to allow congestion rather than invest in expanding network capacity. And as described in Part III, below, our rules allow broadband providers sufficient flexibility to address legitimate congestion concerns and other network management considerations.

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Finally, we note that there is currently significant uncertainty regarding the future enforcement of open Internet principles and what constitutes appropriate network management, particularly in the wake of the court of appeals’ vacatur of the Comcast Network Management Practices Order.

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III. OPEN INTERNET RULES

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