Editorial: Table Talk

Explaining how new network neutrality rules should work is actually pretty easy. It’s like explaining how Yo-Yo Ma plays the cello: He moves his fingers up and down the strings with one hand while drawing a bow across them with the other. Why, it’s that simple!

Everybody is pretty much in agreement on what network neutrality rules should do. Much like that “moves his fingers” explanation, net neutrality rules should prevent anticompetitive discrimination without discouraging innovation and investment. Sounds doable, and we believe it is. But like the skill and subtlety required to play Bach’s Cello Suite No.1, getting it to do so is far from easy.

That is why the FCC is considering a “rainbow” of suggestions on how to re-impose new net neutrality rules that were thrown out in January by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia.

Actually, only two of the three rules were thrown out—anti-blocking and anti-unreasonable discrimination. The transparency rule remains in place. It requires Internet service providers to explain to customers how they are managing their networks, and why. A strong transparency rule should go a long way to providing a baseline for measuring ISP performance. ISPs are legally bound to adhere to those stated policies.

The FCC has not set a timetable for a decision on new rules, and in the interim most ISPs have pledged to abide by the old ones. That includes Comcast, which has no choice given that the rules are a condition of its deal for NBCU.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, after getting hammered by net neutrality activists, has been going out of his way to say that Title II reclassification of ISP service is still on the table. In fact, he and others at the FCC have made the point so many times it’s practically been carved into the conference room table.

We also applaud the FCC’s “roundtables” on net neutrality issues. Ultimately, however, the table most needed should be a negotiating table, one that plays host to all stakeholders in a repeat of the compromise rules agreed upon in 2010.

It will take buy-in from both sides to prevent a repeat of the legal challenges that have worked against the regulatory certainty the ISPs need. There are legitimate concerns on all sides, and with broadband taking over every nook and cranny of life, insuring openness is in everyone’s interest if this orchestra is to stay in tune.