What happens in an FCC rulemaking proceeding?

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Thursday voted to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking on new net neutrality regulations. But what does that mean, exactly?

A notice of proposed rulemaking -- or NPRM, in FCC-speak -- is the first step in a long process for the agency to adopt new rules. In the start of a rulemaking process, the FCC lays out a list of proposed rules, or changes to existing rules, and it asks for comments about those proposals.

In this rulemaking process, interested parties will have until Jan. 14 to send comments to the FCC. A second deadline, for replies to those comments, is March 5. After the whole comment period ends, the FCC may amend its proposals, and in most cases, it will vote on a final set of rules.

In an NPRM, the FCC typically asks several questions about its proposed rules. In the 107-page NPRM released Thursday, the FCC asks how it should treat managed networks that are separate from the common Internet and how it should regulate wireless broadband providers, among other things.

FCC rulemaking proceedings often draw dozens of comments from large companies potentially affected by the proposed rules. Expect comments in this proceeding from a variety of companies and groups, including telecom giants AT&T and Verizon Communications, wireless broadband carriers, several industry trade groups, consumer groups and other interested parties.

But the general public is also invited to comment, although the FCC Web site isn't all that easy to negotiate. The easiest way to comment is to go to the FCC's Electronic Comment Filing System Express page and look for this item: "Commission Inquiry Into Broadband Market Practices Docket -- Docket 07-52."

Comments don't have to be long. In many cases, members of the public write one or two sentences, asking the FCC to approve or reject proposed rules.

In this case, the FCC is seeking comments on its efforts to formalize and expand informal net neutrality principles that have been in place since mid-2005. Backers of new rules say they're necessary to protect the open nature of the Internet against broadband providers that could selectively block or slow Web content.

Opponents of new rules argue they aren't needed and could harm innovation and the growth of the Internet.

In short, the proposed rules say that a broadband provider could use "reasonable" network management, but:

-- Would not be allowed to prevent any of its users from sending or receiving the lawful content of the user's choice over the Internet;

-- Would not be allowed to prevent any of its users from running the lawful applications or using the lawful services of the user's choice;

-- Would not be allowed to prevent any of its users from connecting to, and using on its network, the user's choice of lawful devices that do not harm the network;

-- Would not be allowed to deprive any of its users of the user's entitlement to competition among network providers, application providers, service providers, and content providers;

-- Would be required to treat lawful content, applications, and services in a nondiscriminatory manner;

-- Would be required to disclose such information concerning network management and other practices as is reasonably required for users and content, application, and service providers to enjoy the protections specified in this rulemaking.

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