Monday, June 21, 2010

Thanks be to Comcast

An envoy from Pakistan was in Washington, DC last Thursday at the Federal Communications Commission public meeting to observe U.S. democracy in action. The cautionary tale in American governance to take back to the old country is big and bulky, but the carry-on message is simple: watch out what you wish for.

Once upon a time the connection to the Internet was classified by the FCC as an “information service” under Title 1 of the Telecommunications Act, and everyone agreed to an Internet Policy Statement that protected consumers and ensured (so we thought) open access to content and applications of our choice.

Comcast managed its network in a way that blocked our ability to access certain lawful content and use certain lawful applications. Public Interest groups filed a complaint. The FCC said Comcast violated federal policy. Comcast adopted a new system of bandwidth management. The FCC issued an order telling Comcast to disclose the specifics of its new approach. Comcast complied with the order.

End of story, right?

No, instead Comcast sued the FCC - which led to the now infamous Comcast court decision stating the FCC does not have authority to regulate Internet service providers’ network management under Title 1.

(How do you translate “open a can of worms” in Punjabi, anyway?)

So the FCC announced it will open a proceeding to classify Internet connectivity under Title II in order to expand broadband, protect an open Internet and foster competition. It held its standing-room only meeting in Washington. Commissioners gave passionate speeches and produced a whopping 48 page Notice of Inquiry with 116 paragraphs filled with hundreds of questions that interested parties can comment on before August 12, 2010.

One glaring omission in this tome of questions: Comcast, what in God’s name were you thinking when you sued the FCC?

Business hates uncertainty we are told. Uncertainty chills investment. Everyone knows this, and that litigation in federal court is a crap-shoot where campaign contributions don’t dictate outcomes. “Opening a proceeding creates so much regulatory uncertainty that it harms incentives for investment in broadband infrastructure and makes providers and investors alike think twice about moving forward with network investments under this dark regulatory cloud,” according to Commissioner Baker.

The Comcast decision has led to the FCC proceeding with no end or next step in sight, and gives certain members of Congress one more opportunity to bicker, preen and strut. Meanwhile convoys of lobbyists will get even fatter by the second when they “comment” ad nauseam the daylight out of the time clock.

One thing is for certain. We don’t know what is going to happen at the FCC or in Congress. We do know who to thank, however.

No comments: