FCC plan could revive ‘net neutrality’

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to reclassify broadband as a 'telecommunications' service, but without as much regulation.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski wants to reclassify broadband as a 'telecommunications' service, but without as much regulation.

The head of the Federal Communications Commission thinks he has come up with a way to salvage his ambitious national broadband plans and his hope for “net neutrality,” a principle favored by many school technology advocates, without running into legal obstacles that have threatened to derail him.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said May 6 that his agency has crafted a compromise in how it regulates high-speed internet access: It will apply only narrow rules to broadband companies. The FCC chairman, a Democrat, said this delicate dance will ensure the agency has adequate authority to govern broadband providers without being too “heavy-handed.”

But his plan likely will hit legal challenges from the big phone and cable companies, and it already faces significant opposition from Republicans at the FCC and in Congress.

The FCC has been scrambling to come up with new regulatory framework after a federal appeals court in April cast doubt on its jurisdiction over broadband under existing rules.

The FCC needs that legal authority for the sweeping national broadband plan that it released in March. Among other things, the plan aims to give more Americans access to affordable high-speed internet connections by revamping the federal program that subsidizes telephone service and using it to pay for broadband.

Genachowski also needs this authority to move ahead with his proposal to adopt net-neutrality rules prohibiting phone and cable companies from prioritizing or discriminating against certain types of internet traffic traveling over their lines.

Internet companies such as Google Inc. and Skype Ltd. say these rules are needed to prevent broadband providers from becoming online gatekeepers and blocking internet phone calls, streaming video, and other services that compete with their core businesses.

Many supporters of education technology also favor net neutrality. Failure to pass such regulations would mean the country’s largest universities could pay telecommunications companies for preferential treatment, while small colleges with more limited resources would be at a distinct disadvantage, they say.

Genachowski said his new regulatory framework will allow the FCC to move ahead with its plans and “support policies that advance our global competitiveness and preserve the internet as a powerful platform for innovation.”

The FCC currently treats broadband as a lightly regulated “information service.” It has maintained that this framework gave it ample authority to proceed with its broadband plan and to impose net-neutrality rules. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected this argument.

So now Genachowski is seeking to redefine broadband as a telecommunications service subject to “common carrier” obligations to treat all traffic equally. Similar rules apply to other networks that serve the public, including roads and highways, electrical grids, and telephone lines. But Genachowski said he will refrain from imposing more burdensome mandates that also apply to traditional telecom companies. For instance, he would avoid imposing obligations for the broadband companies to share their networks with competitors.

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