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Editorial: Caveats and Compromises

Make no mistake, the Comcasts and AT&Ts and Verizons of the world would prefer that the FCC not adopt new network neutrality rules. They have made that clear, the FCC’s effort to put rose-colored glasses on their heavily caveated public support for the compromise notwithstanding. But they can also count to three, which happens to be the number of Democratic votes that had been committed to a Title II reclassification approach they saw as the nuclear option.

Cable operators, telcos, and even some public interest groups can live with the compromise proposal the FCC plans to vote on Dec. 21.

While we have to stop short of endorsing political expedience over principle, we can understand why those who have to operate in a world that seeks regulatory sanity can find some refuge there.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski found himself between a rock and a hard place, but with the power to drop that nuclear Title II bomb right in the middle of both. He didn’t.

Instead, Genachowski chose to try and find a middle ground that provides what he thinks is necessary for the FCC to carry out its mission, which, as he has telegraphed at every turn, is to make the way straight and the path as easy as possible for broadband.

If we are to live and work and commune and entertain ourselves on the Internet, as certainly all indications suggest, then it is no surprise that the FCC chairman feels that protecting the openness and accessibility of that lifeline is of paramount importance.

But Genachowski has also been willing to bring the industry to the table and apparently listen to some of their concerns. Yes, that ticks off public-interest groups that saw three votes as the golden ticket to a take-no-prisoners approach, but it also leaves industry some flexibility to monetize their investments in broadband and make more. And let’s not forget that it is industry investment, not government funding, that is going to get broadband to the remaining underserved and unserved communities— just as it has to the majority of the country.

That is something else that the chairman also recognized and figured into his new equation.

It is not at all clear what is going to happen between now and Dec. 21. Democratic commissioner Michael Copps has been talking about his preference for the original Title II option—he would prefer an even stronger dose than Genachowksi proposed. But if he is able simply to move a Title I item too far from the compromise language cable and telcos can support—say, with tougher language on specialized service—all bets are off, and the result, while it may get the requisite votes, could face a barrage of legal challenges, some of which any net neutrality item will probably face.

If Chairman Genachowski cannot get a vote on the item without moving the tipping point past the compromise language, then he should pull it from the agenda.