Monday, February 25, 2008

Broadband network management practices are under the microscope today as the nation’s top media regulators take testimony on some providers’ efforts to organize traffic on the Internet.

The five members of the Federal Communications Commission are holding a public hearing at Harvard Law School, featuring testimony from Internet providers, policy experts and consumer groups.

The concept of “net neutrality” is being debated in the wake of allegations that Comcast Corp. is unreasonably hindering users’ file-sharing applications. At issue is the question of how much leeway broadband providers have in prioritizing access to certain Internet applications over others.

Comcast this month admitted to slowing some customers’ access to peer-to-peer file-sharing program BitTorrent, claiming that such high-bandwidth applications impair other users’ access to the Web. The company said it did not block access to the file-sharing application, however.

“I believe it’s critical that the commission remain vigilant in protecting consumers’ access to the Internet,” FCC Chairman Kevin J. Martin said this morning. “That raises the questions of what are reasonable network practices.”

Mr. Martin, a Republican, did not speak in favor of or against net neutrality regulation. The agency’s two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Jonathan S. Adelstein, said they support a bill from Rep. Edward Markey, Massachusetts Democrat, that would require the FCC to investigate network complaints like the one against Comcast. The bill would give the agency enforcement powers in event of a violation.

“I see no reason for us to have to wait for a new law to get this going,” Mr. Copps said. “Network operators are making choices right now that will determine how Americans communicate today and in the future. The are deciding right now how the Internet is going to be managed. Some of their choices may be right; some of their choices may be wrong.”

Mr. Adelstein likened the issue to the American Revolution, calling for an “Internet Bill of Rights” that would protect consumers’ unfettered access to the Web applications of their choice.

The commission does not have a specific rule on net neutrality, but in 2005 adopted four broadband access principles to ensure that networks are “widely deployed, open, affordable and accessible to all consumers.”

Commissioner Robert M. McDowell, a Republican, noted that the “new media economy is working through growing pains,” but cautioned against government intervention that would lower incentives for companies to build and operate networks.

“History has taught us time and time again that competitive markets are far better able to service consumer demand than government micromangement,” he said. “The law of unintended consequences always has the last word.”

The list of those testifying at today’s hearing includes faculty members from Harvard Law School, Columbia Law School, the University of Pennsylvania Law School and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, in addition to officials from Comcast and Verizon Communications.

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