Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski (News - Alert) is expected to announce a proceeding on new "network neutrality" rules that will prevent Internet service providers from selectively blocking or slowing Web traffic.
The new rules are said to extend to both wired and wireless networks. It is not presently known precisely how those rules will be specified. In a benign form, they will simply clarify the existing rules, which prevent blocking of lawful applications.
Where matters get tricky is where traffic management is concerned. It is not clear whether service providers will be able to lawfully traffic shape peer-to-peer services during times of network congestion, under the new rules.
The FCC (News - Alert) currently has four net neutrality principles, which call on Internet providers to treat all legal Internet data equally. The commission has sought to prohibit companies from deliberately blocking or slowing traffic, based on those principles, but it hasn't adopted more formal rules that clearly delineate content discrimination from network management practices.
The biggest impact likely will be on wireless networks, which for a variety of reasons have more constraints than wired networks. Initial reporting by the Wall Street Journal, though, suggests the FCC will take those constraints into account.
All that can be certain at this point is that, as the rulemaking unfolds, there will be fierce debate over how to further refine the "non-discrimination" rules while still allowing ISPs to manage peak loads on their networks.
Assuming some new rules ultimately are adopted, there is no doubt but that consumer broadband plans are likely to change. Verizon (News - Alert) and other ISPs with fiber-to-home networks might find they have new marketing opportunities, since the networks with the most bandwidth will best be able to avoid any new rules.
If ISPs cannot manage access by slowing P2P traffic at peak hours, they might have to discourage such behavior by raising prices or taking other steps that provide incentives to users not to overtax networks. ISPs might also find that service-assured plans, such as those routinely offered to businesses for additional costs, might be necessary in the consumer market as well.
The rulemaking has not formally been launched or debated, so nothing is certain, except the potential for change. This will be big.Gary Kim (News - Alert) is a contributing editor for TMCnet. To read more of Gary’s articles, please visit his columnist page.
Edited by Amy Tierney