WASHINGTON -- After lengthy negotiations in a variety of forums failed to produce a consensus on how the government should move ahead with network neutrality, one of the companies at the center of the debate is asking policy makers to move on, arguing that a new self-regulatory effort and market pressures will be sufficient to protect consumers.
In a speech here at the Brookings Institution think tank, Comcast (NASDAQ: CMCSA) Executive Vice President David Cohen called the net neutrality debate "almost a distraction" from the more important issues of deploying universal, high-speed Internet service throughout the country.
Cohen touted the efforts of the Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group (BITAG), a new coalition of engineers representing ISPs and Internet companies that is working to recast the net neutrality debate in technical terms.
"Net neutrality is, first and foremost, an engineering issue. It's not a political issue," he said. "To be more exact, it is a set of engineering issues that stem primarily from network management challenges."
"Unfortunately, the national debate around net neutrality and an open Internet has been almost exclusively driven by lawyers. For too long now, the debate has paid too little attention to the engineers, without whom the Internet as we know it wouldn't exist."
BITAG, announced in June, aims to serve as a working group where ISPs and others can hash through the technical challenges of managing network congestion without harming consumers or discriminating against lawful content providers.
In that sense, the group is proposing a self-regulatory solution to the net neutrality conundrum that aims to avoid burdensome oversight from the Federal Communications Commission.
Cohen said BITAG's structure is patterned after the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF), an international community of network experts that divides itself into working groups to develop standardized solutions to Internet problems.
"America has never has a similar domestic forum where companies could bring their questions or problems for objective analyst and solutions. But with BITAG, anybody with a legitimate stake in a network management or other technical issue can contribute to a solution," Cohen said, adding that the group plans to advise federal officials on the technical aspects of Internet policy issues.
"The only condition is one required of all participants -- please don't send lawyers to BITAG working sessions," he said. "Send engineers or other technologists ready to deal with these questions at an engineering level, in a non-adversarial setting."
When Cohen mentions the involvement of the lawyers in the long-running net neutrality debate, he is hardly exempting his own company. It was Comcast, after all, that won a victory against the FCC earlier this year when a federal appeals court overturned a 2008 order punishing the company for secretly throttling traffic on its network. In that decision, the court held that the FCC acted outside its statutory authority in its original order.
That prompted a controversial announcement from FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski that he intended to reclassify broadband service under communications law to clarify the agency's statutory authority. That in turn set in motion a vigorous lobbying campaign on the part of ISPs and their trade associations opposing the measure, which they claimed would saddle the industry with unreasonably burdensome regulatory requirements and chill investment. Those protests were echoed by many members of Congress.
What followed was a series of closed-door negotiations among various stakeholders in the debate that have historically found themselves on opposing sides, including ISPs, Web companies and advocacy groups.
But different sets of negotiations led by the FCC, the industry group Information Technology Industry Council and Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), the chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, each failed to produce a breakthrough, though Cohen emphasized today that the disputing parties agreed on roughly 90 percent of the issues at stake.
The FCC is still mulling over feedback on its proposal to reclassify broadband service to assert so-called Title II authority, which could clear the path for net neutrality rules without legislation, though observers -- Cohen included -- note that the inevitable results would be a lengthy legal challenge.
In the meantime, the prospects for enacting net neutrality or any other legislation that would strengthen the FCC's authority are all but non-existent in the lame-duck session, and appear dim indeed in the next session following Republican gains in the mid-term elections.