Fiber and net neutrality

by Stephen Hardy

In many ways, both the vote within the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) on its proposed network neutrality report and order and the subsequent reaction from industry and analysts were predictable.

The vote was close (3-2) and along party lines, network neutrality proponents said the new rules don't go far enough, and detractors said they extend too far. In this last instance, anti-regulation critics complained that the FCC had assumed powers it didn't lawfully possess and that it might wield unwisely in the future.

However, if we leave aside what the FCC might do in the future and look at what it actually did (and didn't) do, it looks like fiber-optics supporters can breathe a sigh of relief. Because there's really little in the new regime that should significantly hinder investment in optical networks.

In essence, the order charges service providers to refrain from blocking lawful content or practicing "unreasonable" discrimination when serving the needs of the providers of such content.

Service providers also must be open about their network management practices, performance, and commercial terms. The FCC gave carriers leeway in managing their networks, including "reducing or mitigating the effects of congestion on the network." In other words, the bandwidth capping at the heart of the Comcast litigation the FCC recently lost would probably be okay.

About the only thing carriers might want to do that the FCC said "would raise significant cause for concern" is offer tiered Internet delivery services to content and application providers, or what the FCC called "pay for priority."

Several articles in Lightwave have described how the use of platforms that support varying service-level agreements (SLAs) might open new revenue streams for carriers, a benefit that the FCC admonishment would appear to imperil. However, Internet connection directly to subscribers is but one type of service for which carriers might offer SLAs.

In fact, some aspects of the report and order might spur further investment in optical technology. The FCC notes that "specialized services" such as voice over IP and IPTV are different from those the report and order addresses. However, the commission says it will be keeping a close eye on whether Internet access is being adversely affected by the demands of effective specialized service provision. A smart carrier will use optical technology to increase the bandwidth capacity of its network and avoid such a contingency.

When we also consider the fact that the FCC did not reclassify broadband services as it had threatened, the new regime (assuming it stands as is) is not the disaster for optical technology that some might have feared. Gray areas do exist that might cause a small amount of the dreaded "uncertainty" that major carriers such as Verizon cite as an inducement to investment paralysis. But even these major carriers ought to be brave enough to walk the streets the new rules have paved.

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