Federal regulators are reconsidering the rules that govern high-speed internet connections, wading into a bitter policy dispute that could be tied up in Congress and the courts for years. The dispute has important implications for schools and colleges, many of which are hoping for clear rules that prevent service providers from discriminating against certain types of internet traffic.
Over the objections of the agency’s two Republican commissioners, the Federal Communications Commission voted June 17 to begin taking public comments on three different paths for regulating broadband. These include a proposal by FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, a Democrat, to define broadband access as a telecommunications service subject to “common carrier” obligations to treat all traffic equally.
Genachowski’s proposal is a response to a federal appeals court ruling this past spring that cast doubt on the agency’s authority over broadband under its existing regulatory framework.
The chairman’s plan has the backing of many large internet companies, which say it would ensure the FCC can prevent phone and cable companies from using their control over broadband connections to determine what subscribers can do online.
“There is a real urgency to this, because right now there are no rules of the road to protect consumers from even the most egregious discriminatory behavior by telephone and cable companies,” said Markham Erickson, executive director of the Open Internet Coalition. The group’s members include Google Inc., eBay Inc., Amazon.com Inc., and online calling service Skype Ltd.
Genachowski’s plan faces resistance from the broadband providers themselves, including AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. They say it opens the door to onerous and outdated regulations that would discourage them from upgrading their networks.
“This FCC proposal could call into question the business assumptions underlying multibillion-dollar broadband investments,” said Howard Waltzman, a former Republican staffer on the House Commerce Committee who is representing telephone companies as a partner with Mayer Brown LLP.
Many Republicans and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill also oppose Genachowski’s plan. At least one House Republican, Rep. John Culberson of Texas, has proposed blocking funding for the FCC if it pursues the plan.
The FCC currently defines broadband as a lightly regulated information service. But in April, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that this approach does not give the commission the authority it needs to proceed with Genachowski’s plan to adopt “net neutrality” mandates, which would bar broadband providers from favoring or discriminating against traffic traveling over their networks.
Supporters of net neutrality, including many large web companies, say such rules are necessary to prevent phone and cable companies from blocking or degrading online calling services, internet video, and other applications that compete with their core businesses.
Many advocates 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 in attracting students and offering online courses, they say.
The recent appeals court decision grew out of a challenge by Comcast Corp. to a 2008 FCC order directing the cable company to stop blocking subscribers from accessing BitTorrent, an online file-sharing service used to trade video and other large files.
Comcast and other broadband providers insist they need flexibility to manage their networks and ensure that certain applications don’t hog too much bandwidth. They also fear that net-neutrality mandates would prevent them from offering premium services on their networks to earn a healthy return on their investments.