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What does the FCC's net neutrality vote mean?

Matt Hamblen | Feb. 27, 2015
Net neutrality has been debated for a decade, but the Federal Communications Commission's historic vote on Thursday signals only the beginning of further battles and likely lawsuits.

For example, Gartner analyst Akshay Sharma posed the question of whether a doctor in surgery waiting for a critical MRI image to be sent over a public network would have the right to network prioritization over other users on the same network accessing games on BitTorrent. Likewise, in January, the FCC chairman was asked in a public forum at the International CES trade show if pornography on the Internet should be treated equally with medical records. Wheeler didn't answer directly, but repeatedly said the "just and reasonable" standard would apply.

There's not likely to be a much of a public discussion of any of these what-if scenarios, and only a lawsuit resulting from a particular dispute between an edge content provider and an Internet provider is likely to have much bearing.

The FCC has already allowed choke points on telephone networks for network management, Sharma noted. For example, when a radio station offers a prize and callers flood the phone lines, there is network management technology in place that still allows 911 calls to go through.

If the FCC does indirectly force creation of more paid, private networks for heavy traffic users, the emergence of SDN and other technologies will create gray areas, at least in a legal sense, if not a technological one. "The problem you will have is trying to define a public network from what is a private one," said Derek Peterson, chief technology officer for Boingo Wireless, which provides Wi-Fi access to more than 1 million hotspots globally.

Peterson said it is reasonable for the FCC to prohibit paid network prioritization because an Internet provider could hurt one business while helping another on a network link. "An ISP (Internet Service Provider) could sit there and say, 'I don't like that retailer,' which could be bad for it," Peterson said in an interview.

"It's going to be interesting to see how crazy the FCC gets and how technology providers work around rules to deliver the services they need to deliver," he added. "It will be interesting to see how the FCC balances all that and if they are successful at all."


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