By a Narrow Vote, FCC Opens Broadband Overhaul Debate to Public


John Q. Public can have a say on overhauling our nation's broadband regulations and Net neutrality, now that the Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to allow a public comment period.

But the Commission's vote was close -- 3 to 2 in favor. The public comment period, which is expected to open later this afternoon and run through July 15, will center on which which of three paths the commission will take in regulating broadband access.

"Third Way" Redefines Broadband

One of the proposals comes from FCC Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, who's calling on recasting broadband's definition into one that considers it a telecommunications service. With this move, companies like AT&T (T), Verizon Communications (VZ), Comcast (CMCSA) and other telco and cable providers would suddenly have their broadband service subject to common carrier laws.

And under such laws, these telcos and cable companies would be required to open up their broadband pipes to other Internet companies. This, in turn, could expand consumer choice and access to other online services and applications that may otherwise be blocked by the telcos and cable providers.

It's not surprising Genachowski's "third way" doesn't thrill the major broadband service providers but finds favor with those Internet companies who have had trouble adding to their services and features due to resistance from the broadband providers.

The public is asked to comment on these three issues:

  • Whether the Commission's "information service" classification of broadband Internet service remains legally sound and adequate to support effective performance of the Commission's responsibilities.

  • The legal and practical consequences of classifying broadband Internet connectivity as a "telecommunications service" to which all the requirements of Title II of the Communications Act would apply.

  • A "third way" under which the Commission would reaffirm that Internet content and applications remain generally unregulated under Title I of the Communications Act, and identify the Internet connectivity service that is offered as part of wired broadband Internet service as a telecommunications service. It would also forbear under Section 10 of the Act from applying all provisions of Title II other than the small number that are needed to implement fundamental universal service, competition and market entry, and consumer protection policies.

  • Appropriate classification of terrestrial wireless and satellite broadband Internet services.

In response to the FCC vote Thursday, Tom Tauke, Verizon executive vice president for public affairs, policy and communications, said in a statement:

Reclassifying high-speed broadband Internet service as a telecom service is a terrible idea. The negative consequences for online users and the Internet ecosystem would be severe and have ramifications for decades. It is difficult to understand why the FCC continues to consider this option.

Rather than attempting to make the new world of broadband fit into the regulatory scheme of the old telephone world, the FCC should acknowledge that this is an issue Congress should address. Nearly 300 members of Congress have signed letters to the FCC, warning against reclassification and expressing support for Congressional action.

We will continue to work with the Congress, the FCC and other interested parties to resolve these issues in a manner that encourages investment, innovation, jobs and the best possible online experience for users.

After gathering the public's comments, the Commission's goal is to deliver a new legal framework to "ensure universal access to affordable, high-quality broadband services; promote broadband innovation, investment, and competition; and protect and empower consumers," the FCC says in its announcement.

The FCC's "third way" proposal follows a federal appeals court ruling that turned the FCC's role upside down in April. The court questioned the FCC's authority to oversee broadband providers' "network management" practices and said it lacked the authority.