Panel could issue regulations before new Congress

With just weeks left before the political dynamics change in Washington, the FCC is under increasing pressure to pass some version of Net neutrality, the long-in-the-works effort to establish enforceable rules of the road for the Internet.

There’s speculation that FCC chairman Julius Genachowski will propose a compromise plan this week, giving him enough time to garner the votes on the commission and pass Net neutrality rules at its next meeting on Dec. 21.

Genachowski’s plan reportedly would build on a compromise sought by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) before Congress went into recess in September. Waxman’s effort would have prohibited Internet providers from discriminating against lawful traffic while leaving some leeway for wireless providers. But he failed to secure Republican support needed to take quick action.

His proposal was designed to find common ground among telco and tech companies, as well as digital rights orgs and public interest groups, while stopping short of having the FCC take the more contentious step of reclassifying the Internet as a “Title II” telecommunications service.

On Tuesday, Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.), Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.) and Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Ore.) urged Genachowski to act by the end of the year, asserting that the “center of opinion” has moved to a “principled compromise that is sustainable and will work.”

“We understand that there are some who would have you go further and some that would have you do nothing,” they wrote. “But we believe you are headed toward a principled center and we support that effort.”

Studios and record labels have been concerned that the FCC could create regulations so stringent that Internet service providers would be unable to fight piracy, while a number of creative orgs and the Writers Guild of America say that rules are needed to ensure that the Web remains an equal playing field for independent content creators.

In recent days, Genachowski’s staff has held numerous meetings and conversations with telcos and public interest groups, including AT&T, Public Knowledge and T-Mobile. On Monday, Genachowski’s chief of staff, Edward Lazarus, met with reps from Disney, whose general counsel, Alan Braverman, emphasized the need for Net neutrality rules to “permit and encourage” efforts to combat online content theft, according to filings with the FCC.

It’s unclear how a new Genachowski proposal would sit with groups that have been most persistent and vocal about the need for robust Net neutrality rules.

Of major concern to groups like Free Press and Public Knowledge is that the compromise would leave room for telcos to offer some kind of “paid prioritization,” in which a site could pay an Internet service provider for speedier access to customers. They say that such offerings would give an advantage to large media companies.

Some groups also have pointed to a dispute between Level 3 Communications and Comcast as a perfect example of why rules are needed. On Monday, Level 3 charged that Comcast was creating a “tollbooth” around its broadband service by extracting higher rates from Level 3 to deliver streamed movies from a chief client, Netflix, to Comcast customers.

The FCC has made inquiries about the dispute, but Comcast has denied that it is even a dispute about Net neutrality. On Tuesday, Comcast public policy counsel Joseph Waz wrote a letter to FCC wireline competition bureau chief Sharon Gillett in which he said that Comcast “is neither resisting carrying Internet video traffic nor imposing new ‘tolls’ on Internet video traffic.

“Our customers get access to all the online video they want, along with any other Internet content, application, or service they choose — regardless of its source,” Waz wrote.

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