Beltway bandit style Internet regulation might be off the table

by Steve Blum • , , ,

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is reported to be backing away from his no-lobbyist-left-behind method of imposing and enforcing network neutrality rules. The new plan, according to the Wall Street Journal, is to split the Internet service business into two parts: the consumer-facing retail access business, which would remain as it is – largely unregulated – and the back-side business of interconnecting content companies and other ISPs to those retail customers.

The back-side would be regulated as a common carrier business, presumably subject to some kind of network neutrality rules, although that’s not a given. Common carrier status gives the FCC and, potentially, state regulators like the California Public Utilities Commission, regulatory tools to set out rules. Those rules could cover any number of issues, but the fundamental principle of common carrier regulation is that any deal that’s offered to one company has to be available to all. There are exceptions and plenty of opportunities to get lost in the details, but the presumption is that the interconnection side of the business would run under something like transparent rates and terms.

Which could include provisions for fast lanes and anything else. But at least everyone would know what the deal is ahead of time, and have an opportunity to openly contest or encourage it, whatever it is.

As a concept, it’s interesting. But without details – like, would middle mile fiber be included as common carrier infrastructure – it’s impossible to know if Wheeler intends to make a serious effort at bringing broadband infrastructure under the FCC’s regulatory umbrella, or if he’s just taking a different tack in his beloved Beltway game. The WSJ based its story on “people familiar with his thinking”, which is a familiar way of pumping up a trial balloon. We’ll have to wait to see what actually pops.