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October 3, 2011 9:56 AM

FCC Getting Sued From All Angles Over Net Neutrality

Oy, the net neutrality debates just got uglier. Within days of the FCC's net neutrality rules becoming the law of the land, their legitimacy is getting attacked by lawsuits from all sides.

Not only is Verizon calling into question the FCC's authority to regulate broadband at all, even the supporters of net neutrality are calling foul over the FCC's "arbitrary" decision to regulate openness differently between wireline and wireless networks.

What this all leads me to is confirming my belief that the FCC screwed up in taking an approach of trying to find consensus in the crafting of these rules.

Don't get me wrong, I understand why they did it this way. They hoped that a compromise could be found where everyone's a little unhappy, but overall they're satisfied enough to live with the new rules.

Unfortunately I think they misread how polarized the two sides of the net neutrality debates were, and they didn't recognize the politics that have to be played in order to reach anything resembling consensus.

By politics I mean basic things like making sure you have a base of support for what you're doing. There's no way you can get anything of significance done today in politics without at least one side of an issue fervently supporting what you're doing.

Yet the FCC never established that base of support. For the pro net neutrality camp, they were perceived as capitulating to the carriers and not having the will to strive for truly transformational new rules. For the anti net neutrality camp, they never even got them to agree to recognize their authority to regulate broadband in the first place.

And now we're in a position where we have net neutrality rules, but net neutrality supporters are suing because they think they're inadequate, and net neutrality opponents are suing because they don't think the FCC has the authority to implement them in the first place.

Where this is going to leave us is with net neutrality stuck in the courts for an indefinite period of time, and therefore no progress being made to protect consumers or provide regulatory certainty to providers.

The biggest thing that's been missing in this process, in my opinion, isn't just the political savvy required to build a base of support, but also a sense that the FCC has a bigger vision for the future they're trying to enable through these rules. Instead their efforts in net neutrality seem more about making changes around the margins based on the concerns of today in the hopes of quelling malcontents, rather than laying out a plan for where they want to go tomorrow.

The reason I point this out as an issue is without a sense of a bigger picture vision it leaves the FCC's actions open to criticism based purely on their merits as they stand today. If there were a bigger picture, longer term vision, the FCC could frame their actions of the present as steps being taken to get us to a better future.

What I'd love to see them do is to take the time to build upon the national broadband plan to more clearly define what our vision is for the future of broadband in America. Then we can use that vision for the future to define what the best steps to take today are. And the FCC can focus on building consensus first around what that future should look like, and then use that to frame all of their decisions moving forward.

Will this actually happen? If you consider how they're approaching USF reform, the odds are low. Yet again they're plowing forward with rules that don't necessarily have strong support for any one corner and that don't relate to any bigger picture longer term vision for where we want to be in the future.

But ever the optimist, I'm hopeful that it's never too late to recognize the limitations of how business is currently being done, shift gears, and start doing business differently.

Let's just hope that our representatives at the FCC can take a moment to reflect on these lawsuits as not just another example of it being impossible to please everyone, but instead as a learning opportunity to find a new way of going about trying to gain consensus.

Let's stop trying to please everyone right out of the gate. Let's start being bold in laying out a clear vision for the future. Let's build support around specific initiatives to get us there. And let's move forward as a country knowing that you can't make everyone happy in the short-term if you're trying to build a better future for everyone in the long-term.

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