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Protecting Public Networks, Respecting Private Ones, and What About Wireless?

Last Updated on October 18, 2010, 5:43 pm ET

photo CC BY richardmasoner on Flickr.

If you’re reading this, you probably don’t need us to tell you about the long slog that net neutrality advocates have had in convincing the Federal Communications Commission to follow through on President Obama’s and Chairman Genachowski’s promises to protect the openness of the Internet. It’s been the subject of more than a few posts here, and countless thousands elsewhere. Many are saying it’s time for the FCC to act. For now, though, the Commission continues to deliberate.

The latest development in the FCC portion of the net neutrality saga is the recent request for further comment on a couple of subordinate issues: how to treat broadband “specialized services” (whatever they are), and how to regulate wireless broadband access.

Last Tuesday, ARL, along with the American Library Association and EDUCAUSE, filed comments with the FCC to help them work through this latest twist in the discussion. We make a few key points.

First, we agree with the policy concerns that have been raised about “specialized services” — a shorthand for broadband services that your ISP could offer to you that are not straightforward access to the Internet, but would come to your house via the same network and technology that brings you the Internet. Most importantly, we worry that these services could be used as an end-run around net neutrality policies, a way to create Internet “fast lanes” for corporations that could leave educational and scholarly content at a disadvantage. So we ask the FCC to be wary of these consequences and consider a balanced combination of policy approaches to protect the public Internet against the threats that could be posed by specialized services.

At the same time, we ask the FCC to be careful that it doesn’t inadvertently capture private educational networks in the category of specialized services. Universities, research institutions, and some libraries operate private networks that are not and never have been a threat to the open Internet, and it’s important that the FCC craft regulations that avoid inadvertently capturing these networks. So far the concept of “specialized services” has been only sketchily and partially described, but we are confident that with proper care, the FCC will be able to protect the open Internet without adverse impacts on our private networks.

On the second issue in the inquiry, the status of wireless broadband, we urge the FCC to apply the same basic principles of neutrality to all modes of broadband access. Like the rest of the country, students, teachers, and scholars of all kinds increasingly expect to access the same content and services by mobile as they do by wired connections. Wireless broadband providers have said their networks are significantly different from wired connections, and that may be true. Expert agencies like the FCC are perfectly capable of crafting rules that are sensitive to technical differences, and applying those rules in a flexible way. The FCC’s proposed neutrality rules include an allowance for “reasonable network management” that would be more than flexible enough to cover legitimate practices required to operate wireless technology efficiently.

In reality, there is not likely to be much new in this round of comments. The fundamental principles at stake haven’t changed since the Internet was first invented, and the FCC is more than competent to work out the technical details. We were happy to contribute to the agency’s process, and we look forward to the clear, flexible rules that will emerge when the process ends.