Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler has announced that the agency will begin collecting information about recent disputes between Netflix and major broadband providers such as Comcast and Verizon. The agency isn't proposing any new rules yet, but this could be a first step toward FCC regulation of connections between large internet networks.
For the last decade, debates over internet policy have focused on "network neutrality," the question of whether broadband companies can configure their networks to give some kinds of content priority over others. That fight has dragged on and on and on as the Federal Communications Commission has repeatedly tried and failed to come up with an approach that will pass muster with the courts.
Yet recent developments have threatened to make traditional network neutrality regulation almost irrelevant. Earlier this year, Comcast allowed Netflix streaming quality to degrade until Netflix paid it for a faster connection — which Netflix did under protest in February. That might sound like the kind of tactic network neutrality is supposed to prohibit, but because the dispute involved a connection to Comcast's network, instead of treatment of traffic on Comcast's network, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler said Comcast's actions weren't a network neutrality violation.
Now FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is giving this kind of interconnection dispute more scrutiny. He's already gotten copies of Netflix's contracts with Comcast and Verizon, and he says his staff will be collecting more information in the coming weeks.
Effectively regulating the connections between networks would be difficult. The market is complex and it's not clear how to apply the principles of the open internet to interconnection deals. But a useful first step would be more transparency. Right now, interconnection agreements are considered confidential. But the FCC could require incumbent cable and telephone companies to make the terms of their interconnection deals public. That would permit a better-informed debate over the future of broadband regulation.