FCC: Where does the network stop and the Internet start?

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In remarks last week following a Federal Communications Commission open meeting, chairman Tom Wheeler stated that the peering issue raised by Netflix CEO Reed Hastings the previous week and the issue of the fate of the FCC’s net neutrality framework are separate issues.

Wall Street Journal reporter had prefaced a question by saying the Chairman had been quoted elsewhere as saying he would not be looking into the peering question. And indeed, that is how some sources interpreted his statements, which were later reinterpreted by an FCC spokesperson as having declared peering not a topic of the Open Internet proceedings.  By extension, bloggers took those comments to mean it wasn’t a topic at all.

At issue is whether peering agreements (or what Chairman Wheeler would prefer to call “interconnection”) between Netflix and Comcast, in order to ensure fair quality of service for applications such as high-definition video, go against the grain of the FCC’s net neutrality principles–which a federal judge has suspended, for now.

“I’m not sure where you’re quoting that I said that,” Wheeler told the reporter, clearly indicating he doesn’t read tech news blogs. “One of the things that I have said repeatedly is that part of the ‘network compact’ is interconnection. And ‘peering’ is a three-dollar-and-fifty-cent word in an Internet society for ‘interconnection.'”

Later, Wheeler added, “I think one of the things that I have said along the way is that peering is not a net neutrality issue. We haven’t seen peering as a net neutrality issue. There is a matter of the ‘open Internet,’ and then there is a matter of interconnection among the various, disparate pathways that become the Internet.”

The $64 question quickly became, what did Wheeler mean by the $3.50 word?

The Chairman’s strategy is evidently to separate the political context of net neutrality from the technical issue of network interconnection. The phrase itself was born from the political debate over whether ISPs should be granted the right to offer exclusive service tiers based on the bandwidth requirements of Internet applications. Back in 2006, it did seem these issues were intertwined, as the performance of the Internet as a whole could clearly be affected (perhaps even positively) by the interconnection arrangements that ISPs made with content providers.

But Wheeler paints a picture of an Internet that is more analogous with the interstate highway system, in the context of a planet that also has streets, avenues, on-ramps and driveways. In his mind, there is an open system that is content-agnostic, but the entryways to that system include proprietary pipelines that are owned and operated by network operators and telcos.

The FCC may continue to be concerned with both topics. But the Wheeler strategy is a split from that of then-Chairman Julius Genachowski, whose proposed rulemaking in October 2009 clearly explained, and even diagrammed, the “open Internet” to which Wheeler refers as an end-to-end system of TCP/IP that extends through the “last-mile” pipeline to consumer devices.

“TCP/IP reflects a so-called ‘end-to-end’ system design,” the 2009 rulemaking proposal read, “in which the routers in the middle of the network are not optimized toward the handling of any particular application, while network endpoints (the user’s computer or other communicating device) are expected to perform the functions necessary to support specific networked applications. The practical implication of this design philosophy has been that a software developer can develop new networked applications by writing programs only for end-user computers, without needing to modify the far more specialized programs running on network routing equipment.”

At that time, Genachowski’s critics claimed that, by extending the Internet from everyone’s desktops and laptops to the trunk and back again, the same way the “public airwaves” extended from the tips of radio antennas to the transmission stations, the FCC was trying to bite off more than it could chew. Wheeler’s separation of powers, if you will, could be a ploy to take things a little easier, perhaps paving the way for congresspeople normally disinclined to support government regulations against private interests, to sign their names to a more limited form of net neutrality.

For more:
– read this blog on The Hill
– the article on The Verge

By Jarrett Neil Ridlinghafer 
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