US Open Internet access hotly debated before FCC

Experts debate net neutrality before US Federal Communications Commission

Fighting insomnia one night, all Robert Topolski wanted to do was send digital recordings of 19th-century barbershop quartet music to some friends.

His attempts were blocked by leading Internet service provider Comcast and that ignited a national firestorm around digital peer-to-peer file sharing and "net neutrality" and lead Thursday to Topolski, a software quality engineer from Oregon, testifying before the Federal Communications Commission at Stanford University before a vocal crowd of several hundred people.

During the eight-hour hearing, the second time the FCC has listened to testimony about net neutrality this year, 17 experts from songwriters and independent filmmakers to economists and engineers along with dozens of members of the public argued about the practice by some big ISPs to control, and sometimes prevent, legal data from moving on their networks. All top 12 ISPs declined the FCC's invitation to testify Thursday.

However, L. Brett Glass, founder of the small wireless ISP Larinet.net of Laramie, Wyoming, testified as one of the more than 4,000 wireless ISPs (WISPs) in the US, which he described as dependent on being able to mitigate peer to peer file transfers, prioritize data traffic, and cache files to manage rural networks without charging higher prices to offset the expense of Internet backbone access.

"Should the FCC mandate that small, independent, or rural ISPs cease to employ these and similar technological measures to ensure the quality of their service, many or most small, local operators would have to raise prices dramatically or quit business," Glass said.

While Glass described network management practices such as prioritizing Voice over IP packets over other data so calls go through quickly, most testimony looked at the larger picture of open access,free speech, and the lack of transparency by ISPs to customers about how they manage files flowing on networks.

Throughout the hearing witnesses criticized recent actions by Comcast of misrepresenting to the FCC its practice of continuing to block legal file sharing and its public relations moves this week to set up a consumer bill of rights with Pando Networks, a New York City start-up that offers free P2P software, without inviting consumer advocacy groups and other companies on the P2P Workgroup to participation its development.

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