Federal regulators plan to change the way they govern broadband services to ensure they can pursue their efforts to bring high-speed connections to all Americans and require phone and cable companies to treat all Internet traffic equally.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski on Thursday will lay out a roadmap for regulating broadband that has been eagerly anticipated since a federal court ruling last month cast doubt on the agency's authority over high-speed Internet access.
The FCC's new approach would change the way it defines broadband without imposing additional regulations. Genachowski hopes to satisfy both Internet providers that oppose any new regulations and public interest groups that have been calling on the commission to impose stricter rules.
Several public interest groups expressed cautious support. Josh Silver, head of the group Free Press, said the agency appears to be "charting a path toward a sensible broadband policy framework that will protect consumers and promote universal access."
Phone and cable companies, however, appeared to be reserving judgment. Both Verizon Communications Inc. and the cable industry's lead trade group, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, said they could not comment until they get more details from the FCC.
At least one Republican senator who also opposes new rules said he is disappointed with Genachowski's move.
"Using this heavy-handed approach to regulation ... will jeopardize private investment and innovation in broadband and inject regulatory uncertainty throughout the entire Internet," Sen. John Ensign of Nevada, a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, said in a statement.
The FCC currently defines broadband as a lightly regulated "information service." It had maintained that this gave it authority to implement a sweeping national broadband plan it released in March. Among other things, the plan includes a proposal to use federal subsidies for telephone service to help pay for Internet connections.
The FCC also said its existing regulatory framework gave it ample authority to impose so-called "network neutrality" rules prohibiting broadband providers from favoring or discriminating against any traffic flowing over their networks.
But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected this argument. It ruled last month that the FCC had overstepped its authority when it imposed net neutrality obligations on cable giant Comcast Corp.
Since then, the FCC has been trying to decide whether to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, which would be subject to heavier regulation and "common carrier" obligations to share networks and treat all traffic equally.
Late Wednesday, the agency said it will seek a "third way" — a balance between what it called "weak" rules for information services and "needlessly burdensome" rules for telecommunications services. This approach, the FCC said, would apply a "small handful" of telecommunications regulations to broadband providers and set "meaningful boundaries to guard against regulatory overreach."
The FCC said the new approach will "restore the status quo as it existed prior to the court decision."
Last month's ruling centered on Comcast's behavior in 2007 when it interfered with subscribers using the online file-sharing service BitTorrent, which lets people swap movies and other big files. The FCC, then led by Republican Kevin Martin, ordered Comcast to stop blocking subscribers from using BitTorrent. The agency based its decision on net neutrality principles it had adopted in 2005.
But Comcast argued the order was illegal because the agency was seeking to enforce principles and not regulations or laws.
Genachowski, a Democrat, is now pushing the FCC to adopt formal net neutrality rules that would apply across the industry.
Comcast also argued the FCC lacks authority to mandate net neutrality because it had deregulated broadband by classifying it as an information service under the Bush administration. That decision was upheld by the Supreme Court in 2005, but the FCC's next move could reverse course on that approach.
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