Net neutrality: the disaster that keeps on giving

by on July 29, 2011 · 7 comments

On CNET this morning, I argue that delay in approving FCC authority for voluntary incentive auctions is largely the fault of last year’s embarrassing net neutrality rulemaking.

While most of the public advocates and many of the industry participants have moved on to other proxy battles (which for most was all net neutrality ever was), Congress has remained steadfast in expressing its great displeasure with the Commission and how it conducted itself for most of 2010.

In the teeth of strong and often bi-partisan opposition, the Commission granted itself new jurisdiction over broadband Internet on Christmas Eve last year.  Understandably, many in Congress are outraged by Chairman Julius Genachowski’s chutzpah.

So now the equation is simple:  while the Open Internet rules remain on the books, Congress is unlikely to give the Chairman any new powers.

House Oversight Committee Chairman Darrell Issa has made the connection explicit, telling reporters in April that incentive auction authority will not come while net neutrality hangs in the air.  There’s plenty of indirect evidence as well.

The linkage came even more sharply into focus as I was writing the article.  On Tuesday, Illinois Senator Mark Kirk offered an amendment to Sen. Reid’s budget proposal, which would have prohibited the FCC from adding neutrality restrictions on VIA auctions.  On Wed., Sen. Dean Heller wrote a second letter to the Chairman, this one signed by several of his colleagues, encouraging the Commission to follow President Obama’s advice and consider the costs and benefits of the Open Internet rules before implementing them.

Yesterday, key House Committee chairmen initiated an investigation into the process of the rulemaking, raising allegations of improper collusion between the White House and the agency, and of a too-cozy relationship between some advocacy groups and members of the Commission.

All this for rules that have yet to take effect, and which face formidable legal challenges.

The Chairman needs a political solution to a problem largely of his own creation.  But up until now, there’s little indication that either the FCC or the White House understand the nature of the challenge.  This year, we’ve had a steady drumbeat of spectrum crisismongering, backed up by logical policy and economic arguments in favor of the VIAs.

While some well-respected economists aren’t convinced VIAs are the best solution to a long history of spectrum mismanagement, for the most part the business case has been made.  But the FCC keeps making it anyway.

Meanwhile, the net neutrality problem isn’t going away.  Mobile users are enjoying their endless wireless Woodstock summer, marching exuberantly toward oblivion, faster and in greater numbers all the time.

Silicon Valley better save us.  Because the FCC, good intentions aside, isn’t even working on the right problem.


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