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Published December 21, 2010, 04:42 PM

FCC Rules Aim to Level Playing Field for Web Content

The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday adopted first-ever regulations for broadband Internet service, rules designed to foster the fast-evolving market for TV and movies over the Web.

By: Mike Zapler, San Jose Mercury News (MCT)

WASHINGTON - The Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday adopted first-ever regulations for broadband Internet service, rules designed to foster the fast-evolving market for TV and movies over the Web.

The network neutrality rules are meant to prevent broadband operators like Comcast and AT&T from favoring their own content over rival online video sites like Netflix, or wireless companies from blocking Internet phone applications like Skype. Consumers increasingly are using their Web connections to watch their favorite TV shows and movies at a fraction of the cost of a cable subscription — a threat to Internet providers that also have lucrative pay-TV franchises they want to protect.

The rules are designed to give Internet entrepreneurs the peace of mind that they will have unfettered access to Web users without having to negotiate with broadband networks owners for access to their pipes.

The regulations, approved in a 3-2 vote, would bar broadband companies from managing their networks in ways that unfairly discriminate against competitors. Infractions would be considered on a case-by-case basis but would likely include degrading the quality of rival video sites or charging a site or application extra fees for faster delivery over a broadband network. The Internet providers would also have to disclose how they are managing traffic over their networks — exposure that Genachowski believes would head off bad behavior.

Wireless Internet operators would be subject to somewhat more lenient regulations.

The rules could be tested in a few ways. A complaint could be filed alleging a violation, which the FCC could investigate under an expedited process. Or opponents could challenge the regulations in court, arguing that the commission lacks authority under telecommunications law to enact the regulations. A federal court ruled earlier this year that the FCC lacks jurisdiction over broadband, and some critics say the rules passed Tuesday are likewise on shaky legal ground. But Genachowski used a legal basis to justify the rules that he is confident would withstand a court challenge.

The party-line vote marks a big win for Genachowski, who spent the better part of a year trying to fashion a compromise on net neutrality amid a firestorm of criticism from both ends of the political spectrum.

His proposal won significant support from Silicon Valley, including Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who was on hand for Tuesday's FCC vote.

"I wish it had gone farther, but I'm glad they made the statement that they made," Wozniak remarked, saying he doesn't trust broadband operators not to play favorites to benefit their own business interests.

Democratic Commissioner Michael Copps said he preferred stronger net neutrality regulations but said the compromise plan was better than nothing at all. Voting against it, he said, would have stalled progress on net neutrality "for at least two years."

Republican Commissioner Robert McDowell accused the Democratic majority on the commission of abusing its legal authority and taking on the role of legislators. The vote is an example of "top-down control by unelected political appointees," he said, adding: "Nothing is broken in the Internet access market that needs fixing."

But Genachowski pointedly disagreed, saying basic government rules are essential to keep the Internet open for consumers and innovators.

"We have heard from so many entrepreneurs, engineers, venture capitalists and others working daily to maintain U.S. leadership in innovation," Genachowski said, "and their message has been clear: The next decade of innovation in this sector is at risk without sensible rules of the road."

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(c) 2010, San Jose Mercury News (San Jose, Calif.).

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