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Internet Regulatory Reform Proceeds Apace, Quietly

News accounts tell us that Congress, led by Chairman Rick Boucher (D-Va.) and Ranking Member Cliff Stearns (R-Fla.) of the Internet Subcommittee, is developing a new regulatory framework for broadband Internet services.

Boucher and Stearns are going about this business in the way that Congress usually approaches contentious issues, by meeting with stakeholders and planning a series of hearings. Despite the canard that Congress only moves slowly, it can and does act quickly when there’s an evident consensus that action needs to be taken: The US Patriot Act, after all, was signed into law a mere 45 days after the September 11 attacks, and it was a very substantial and far-reaching law.

The difference, however, is that America doesn’t perceive an imminent crisis in the state of the broadband Internet that would warrant such expeditious action.

A recent survey conducted by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) indicates that Americans are highly satisfied with their network services:

Most Americans are satisfied with the broadband speed they are getting. Fully 91 percent of broadband users say they are “very” or “somewhat” satisfied with the speed they get at home. The comparable number for mobile broadband, which is not yet technologically capable of the same speeds as home broadband, is 71 percent satisfaction.

In one sense, the critics of Congressional involvement in Internet broadband regulation are right: It’s not realistic to expect sudden and major action as long as American consumers don’t perceive a problem that warrants immediate and drastic action. But Congress does appear to be moving cautiously and deliberately to address the uncertainty about the FCC’s role in Internet regulation that came about when the Commission’s Comcast ruling was overturned by the D.C. Circuit Court on April 6.

Understandably, the FCC doesn’t want to be left out of the process, so it’s conducting a series of stakeholder meetings of its own, on the assumption that a consensus position backed by the opposing sides as well as the regulator will be very attractive to the lawmakers.

The first of these meetings included network operators, advertisers, and service providers: Lobbyists from AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T), Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ), the National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) , Google (Nasdaq: GOOG), Skype Ltd. , and the Open Internet Coalition (OIC) of Internet advertisers met with Chairman Genachowski’s chief of staff, Edward Lazarus, and a pair of top FCC policy thinkers, Paul DeSa and Zachary Katz, for a couple of hours on Monday to take temperatures.

Those who were present have told me the meeting didn’t reach any conclusions or strike any deals, and the principal result was simply an agreement to hold another meeting. Our democracy is, for the time being at least, still safe.

Some members of the public interest lobby are shedding crocodile tears over their exclusion from this meeting, but they know better.

The debate over how best to regulate the broadband Internet is mature enough that the sides are well defined, and there’s no doubt that the interest groups that have aligned with the “heavy regulation” contingent were well represented ideologically. In all likelihood, the debate about regulating the broadband Internet, paid peering, privacy, and Internet content will continue well past the November elections, but some significant milestones are going to appear before we have a new regulatory structure.

Some elements will be disclosed in private before they become public; that’s the way these things work. As long as some parties are intent on milking each step of the process for maximum outrage, it should come as no surprise that the other parties want to conduct some of the business outside their view.

There’s been entirely too much over-reaction in the net neutrality debate, so toning down the rhetoric is vital to reaching consensus.

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