THIS STORY HAS BEEN FORMATTED FOR EASY PRINTING

FCC reasserts its power to regulate Internet providers

The FCC chairman said his plan would protect the public without overwhelming Internet companies with regulations. The FCC chairman said his plan would protect the public without overwhelming Internet companies with regulations.
By Hiawatha Bray
Globe Staff / May 7, 2010

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

One month after a federal court stripped the Federal Communications Commission of its power to regulate broadband Internet providers, the agency said it plans to restore that authority.

Internet service providers Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest broadband companies, were quick to criticize the FCC’s intentions. Comcast Corp. issued a statement saying it was disappointed by the decision. Verizon said the federal agency’s new policy could harm consumers by discouraging broadband investment and innovation, and, in a statement from spokesman Tom Tauke, questioned the legality of the FCC’s proposal.

“We believe that the chairman’s stated approach is legally unsupported,’’ the statement said. “The regulatory and judicial proceedings that will ensue can only bring confusion and delay to the important work of continuing to build the nation’s broadband future.’’

The FCC plan would reverse a Bush administration policy that classified Internet service providers, or ISPs, as information services, which are largely exempt from federal regulation. Instead, the agency will classify the Internet companies as telecommunications carriers, making them subject to the same regulations that apply to telephone companies.

However, the FCC will refrain from enforcing many of the regulations that phone companies must obey. For example, the FCC requires phone companies to share access to their networks, so that rivals can launch competing phone services without having to string their own wires. Broadband providers will not have to share their networks under the FCC plan.

Comcast spokeswoman Sena Fitzmaurice praised FCC chairman Julius Genachowski’s willingness to compromise. “We . . . appreciate the chairman’s desire to take extremes off the table,’’ Fitzmaurice said.

Genachowski called his proposal a “third way,’’ that would protect the public interest without overwhelming Internet companies with excessive regulations.

“The FCC’s role . . . should not involve regulating the Internet itself,’’ Genachowski said in a statement. “Consumers do need basic protection against anticompetitive or otherwise unreasonable conduct by companies providing the broadband access service.’’

Critics of the hands-off approach favored under the Bush administration praised the FCC decision.

“To me, this is a very measured way of going forward,’’ said Gigi Sohn, president of the Internet activist group Public Knowledge. “He wanted to find a third way, and he found one.’’

But Scott Cleland, chairman of NetCompetition.org, a trade group financed by broadband Internet providers, called the new policy “the single most destructive action I have witnessed in my 20 years following the FCC.’’ Cleland said that the FCC lacked the legal authority to change the way it regulates broadband companies, and that the new policy would probably be tied up in court for years.

US Representative Ed Markey, Democrat of Malden, who supports stronger regulation of Internet companies, issued a statement saying the new policy “appears to be a smart, Solomonic middle way to ensure continued innovation, consumer protection, and certainty in the broadband marketplace.’’

It was a court case brought by Comcast that inspired the new FCC policy. In 2007, Comcast began restricting the use of a file-sharing technology called BitTorrent, saying users of the service transmitted so much data that they were slowing down the entire network. In 2008, the FCC ordered Comcast to halt the practice, saying that the company had no right to discriminate against one particular type of Internet traffic.

The FCC argued that despite the Bush administration’s exemption of Internet providers from regulation, the agency still had limited authority over Comcast. Comcast complied but sued to challenge the FCC’s authority.

Last month the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia unanimously agreed with Comcast, ruling that the federal agency has no statutory power to regulate such services.

Since the ruling was issued, activist groups like Public Knowledge have urged the FCC to reassert the agency’s authority by reclassifying Internet providers as telecom firms.

Genachowski’s proposal would empower the FCC to prohibit Internet companies from discriminating against different kinds of data traffic on the network, a concept called “net neutrality.’’

It would also allow the FCC to prohibit “unjust and unreasonable’’ pricing of Internet services, permit consumers to file FCC complaints about broadband service, and set standards to protect personal information of Internet users.

In addition, broadband carriers would participate in the Universal Service Fund, which was originally created to pay for setting up telephone service in remote parts of the country. Broadband companies would pay into the fund and be eligible to receive subsidies from it when building new networks in rural areas.

Genachowski said the additional authority is vital if the FCC is to carry out the Obama administration’s national broadband plan, which proposes to deliver high-speed Internet access to at least 100 million American homes by 2020.

Hiawatha Bray can be reached at bray@globe.com.