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FCC commissioner weighs in on net neutrality

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

Lane Turner/Globe Staff

FCC commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel

Federal Communications Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel knows how to make her way through Boston. During a visit Thursday, she used the Red Line to get around town. It’s just as well she wasn’t recognized. Our city’s tech-savvy commuters would have bombarded her with hot-button questions.

What’s up with the FCC’s pending rules on Internet neutrality? What will it take to bring better high-speed Internet service to Boston? Will next year’s big auction of TV frequencies lead to cheaper, faster wireless data service? And are the mergers between media giants really in the public interest?

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Of all the issues before the FCC, none has triggered such tremendous public response as the agency’s proposal on so-called net neutrality, in which Internet providers would be required to treat all online traffic alike. The FCC’s previous policy prohibiting the giant companies that deliver Internet services to homes and businesses from discriminating against certain kinds of online traffic was struck down by a federal court.

So in May, FCC chairman Tom Wheeler floated a proposal that left open the possibility that Internet companies could charge higher rates to some providers, such as online video distributors, for delivering their content to users faster and at the highest quality. Internet activists were outraged at the concept of a two-tier Internet, where wealthier companies could pay for superior online performance, while poorer rivals would be hindered by slower Internet speeds.

The agency is currently soliciting public comments on the subject, and so far has received more than 1 million responses — many critical of Wheeler’s suggestion.

One of three Democrats on the five-member commission, Rosenworcel broadly supports prohibiting providers from favoring one form of Internet traffic over another.

“If you want to be able to go and do something on a legal website, your broadband provider shouldn’t impede your ability to do so,” Rosenworcel said.

But how much federal regulation would be needed to meet this goal? Many net neutrality advocates want to see the Internet regulated as a public utility, as the phone companies once were. Rosenworcel seemed reluctant to go that far.

“We have to strike the right balance,” she said. “Because on the one hand, it’s very important that we have access and ubiquity for everyone, and a certain amount of oversight helps to facilitate that. On the other hand, we want to make sure that government’s touch is light enough that we spur the kind of innovation that we’re seeing when it comes to Internet networks.”

While there’s plenty of online innovation, there isn’t as much competition among Internet providers. Rosenworcel called it “a striking fact” that most of Boston, the biggest city in New England, is served by just one high-speed Internet provider, Comcast Corp. RCN Corp. offers Internet service in a small part of the city, while Verizon Communications offers DSL, a far slower Internet service, in Boston.

“If you have the choice of many providers, you create a more competitive environment,” Rosenworcel said. “But many consumers have the choice of only one or two providers that can offer them really fast broadband speeds.” She said federal and state governments should streamline their tax and regulatory policies to make it worthwhile for more companies to enter the market.

Rosenworcel is also preparing for next year’s effort to expand the capacity of America’s wireless data networks. The FCC will hold a special auction in which TV stations will be asked to voluntarily relinquish some of their licensed broadcast frequencies. These will be resold by the FCC to the nation’s cellular carriers, which will use them for future high-speed data services.

TV stations who agree to sell off some of their frequencies will get a cut of the auction proceeds, which will likely run into the billions of dollars. The US Treasury will keep the rest.

“It’s real premium spectrum for mobile broadband use,” Rosenworcel said. “The world is watching. It’s the first time this kind of auction will ever be held.”

Rosenworcel and her fellow FCC commissioners must also weigh in on a spate of proposed mergers of giant digital media companies. Comcast plans to purchase Time Warner Cable. That company was spun off from media titan Time Warner Inc., which is the target of a takeover bid from News Corp., owner of the Fox TV networks and the Wall Street Journal. Cellular carrier Sprint Corp. wants to buy rival cellphone company T-Mobile US Inc.

“We look across the board at all the laws we have and try to identify how consistent or inconsistent a transaction is, relative to the laws and the frameworks that Congress has provided us with,” Rosenworcel said, but she offered no hint on her own views on the planned acquisitions.

While she vowed to use federal power to protect the public interest, Rosenworcel said she plans to act with caution.

“If you’re a regulator, I think you have to have a little humility when it comes to technology and acknowledge that the future may not be something we can fully predict,” she said.

Also see:

A rising tide of Internet regulation

Editorial: FCC plan guts net neutrality; open Web needs protection

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.
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