Cable Industry and Net Neutrality Backers Differ on Broadband Grants

The Cable industry argued for keeping the "stimulus" portion of the stimulus package top of mind when figuring out just how to condition broadband grants, while network neutrality fans pushed for tough conditions.

A representative of NCTA called for confining access conditions to the FCC's four Internet freedoms rather than tougher conditions that might discourage investment, while network neutrality backers said that tougher conditions are what taxpayers should be paying for with their investment.

That difference of opinion came as the National Telecommunications & Information Administration continued its public meetings on the economic stimulus package's broadband grants program Monday. This time, panelists were drilling down into the tough issue of the open access conditions that Congress put on the $7.2 billion available.

Those are the conditions that the cable and telco industry argue could discourage them from applying for the grants if the conditions are too strict.

Network neutrality fan Free Press argued at Monday's public forum in Washington that strict conditions are just what are called for. Policy Director Ben Scott came armed with almost 15,000 signatures on a petition supporting "strong network neutrality conditions.

Scott said that the program was not meant to be a "charity" for broadband providers, but instead was a socially responsible investment of taxpayers money, who should expect nondiscrimination for their money.

Free press defines that nondiscrimination as the following:

"Grant recipients must not provide or sell to Internet content, application, or service providers, any service that privileges, degrades, prioritizes, or discriminates against any lawful content transmitted over the grant recipient's Internet access service.

"Grant recipients must offer bandwidth for Internet service upon reasonable request, on rates, terms and conditions that are just, reasonable and nondiscriminatory. The nondiscrimination condition should not be construed to prohibit a grant recipient from engaging in reasonable network management consistent with the principle of nondiscrimination."

With the caveat for "reasonable network management," Gigi Sohn, president of Public Knowledge, seconded that, saying any thing less would not be a reasonable return on taxpayer investment.

Sohn said that the FCC's four principles of nondiscrimination do not address prioritizing content. Congress suggested that those principles, at the least, must be applied, with NTIA, the Rural Utilities Service and the FCC charged with deciding whether to adopt those as the standard or come up with something different.

James Assey, executive VP of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, called instead for some "Regulatory humility," pointing out that the larger purpose of the stimulus package is creating jobs and promoting economic recovery, and that the funds also need to go out as quickly as possible "consistent with prudent management."

"At the end of the day," said Assey, "if we impose new and untested requirements as a condition of stimulus funding, one concern is that we risk injecting contentiousness, uncertainty and delay into a process that really should be focused on creating jobs and spurring adoption"

Start "layering on" conditions , he said, and we are going to discourage the people in the best position to get infrastructure to un-served areas, where the cable industry believes the government should be focusing its time and energy--it is also charged with helping "underserved" areas, though the definition of that could be the several-billion-dollar question.

Assey suggested that sticking with the FCC principles rather that sailing off into uncharted waters would be the speediest course to broadband deployment. "We shouldn't try and reinvent the wheel."

Sohn countered that it is not just about job creation for networks, but for companies like Google, Yahoo, Skype and Vonage, who she said "cannot survive and innovate" without network openness.

The issue of prioritization of information got some exercise during the discussion after a question from the audience a about whether deep-packet inspection should be precluded by an NTIA nondiscrimination definition.

Sohn brought up Cox's trial of prioritizing time-sensitive traffic during times of congestion, saying that it should not be up to the cable operator but to the consumer what they consider time-sensitive. One of the pitches for prioritizing includes prioritizing telemedicine, but Sohn says even that call should be up to the consumer. "We don't want network providers making these kinds of decisions, if I want my 911 call to my telemedicine service prioritized, that should be my choice not the network provider's choice."

"Cox is running a trail right now where they decide what traffic is time sensitive and what traffic isn't during times of congestion. They are going to slow down what they deem to be non-time sensitive, even if to you the consumer it's critically important."

Assey argued that the government did not want to go down the road of prohibiting a technology in a "dynamic area" where network operators are having to deal with worms and viruses. To do so, he said, could wind up hurting the customer. "We need to restrain ourselves and allow the network operator the flexibility to manage the network in a way that is going to maximize the consumer experience."

The second panel of the day was on broadband mapping. One of the suggestions from network neutrality backers was that network management techniques should be part of that data collection.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.