WASHINGTON, D.C. — The head of the Federal Communications Commission thinks he has come up with a way to salvage his ambitious national broadband plans without running into legal obstacles that have threatened to derail him.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski said Thursday that his agency has found a compromise in how it regulates high-speed Internet access: It will apply only narrow rules to broadband companies. The FCC chairman, a Democrat, said this delicate dance will ensure the agency has adequate authority to govern broadband providers without being too “heavy-handed.”
But his plan is likely to hit legal challenges from the big phone and cable companies and already faces significant opposition from Republicans at the FCC and in Congress.
The FCC has been scrambling to come up with new regulatory framework after a federal appeals court last month cast doubt on its jurisdiction over broadband under existing rules.
The FCC needs that legal authority so it can carry out the sweeping national broadband plan that it released in March. Among other things, the plan aims to give more Americans access to affordable high-speed Internet connections by revamping the federal program that subsidizes telephone service and using it to pay for broadband.
Genachowski also needs this authority to move ahead with his proposal to adopt “network neutrality” rules prohibiting phone and cable companies from prioritizing or discriminating against Internet traffic traveling over their lines. Internet companies such as Google Inc. and Skype Ltd. say these rules are needed to prevent broadband providers from becoming online gatekeepers and blocking Internet phone calls, streaming video and other services that compete with their core businesses.
Genachowski said his new regulatory framework will allow the FCC to move ahead with its plans and “support policies that advance our global competitiveness and preserve the Internet as a powerful platform for innovation.”
The FCC currently treats broadband as a lightly regulated “information service.” It has maintained that this framework gave it ample authority to proceed with its broadband plan and to impose net neutrality rules. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia rejected this argument.
So now Genachowski is seeking to redefine broadband as a telecommunications service subject to “common carrier” obligations to treat all traffic equally. Similar rules apply to other networks that serve the public, including roads and highways, electrical grids and telephone lines. But Genachowski said he will refrain from imposing more burdensome mandates that also apply to traditional telecom companies. For instance he would avoid imposing obligations for the broadband companies to share their networks with competitors.
The proposal is intended to strike a balance that can satisfy both Internet service providers that oppose new regulations and public interest groups that are demanding greater consumer protections.
The FCC will soon seek public comment on Genachowski’s proposal. It would have to be approved by three or more of the FCC’s five commissioners, and Genachowski is expected to have the support of his two fellow Democrats.
Several public interest groups and at least one key Democrat who sits on the House committee that oversees the FCC, Rep. Edward Markey of Massachusetts, praised the proposal. “With this decision, the FCC will ensure that the agency remains the ‘cop on the beat,’ protecting consumers and competition on the World Wide Web,” Markey said.
But Republicans lined up against the plan.
The two Republican FCC commissioners, Robert McDowell and Meredith Baker, said the proposal would “shatter the boundaries” of the agency’s authority and discourage broadband providers from investing in their networks by imposing “burdensome rules excavated from the early-Ma Bell-monopoly era onto 21st century networks.”
House Republican Leader John Boehner of Ohio called the plan “a government takeover of the Internet.”At this point, the real battle is likely to play out in a courtroom if the big phone and cable companies decide to challenge the new framework. The companies already oppose Genachowski’s network neutrality proposal, warning that restrictions on what they can do with their networks will discourage them from investing in their lines.
Several telecom stocks dived Thursday. Shares of Comcast Corp., the nation’s largest cable TV provider, fell 7 percent in afternoon trading, while Cablevision Systems Corp. dropped 8 percent and Time Warner Cable plunged 9 percent. Shares of phone companies Verizon Communications Inc. and AT&T Inc. dropped about 4 percent.
Tom Tauke, Verizon’s top Washington official, said Genachowski’s new approach to regulation is “legally unsupported” and “could ultimately harm consumers and inhibit the innovation and investment he wants to encourage.”