FCC to make move on net neutrality

The FCC will announce on Thursday that it still plans to pursue tough net neutrality rules, opening a new front in an ongoing legal battle that could come to define the commission under Chairman Julius Genachowski.

A senior FCC official said Wednesday that the chairman "will seek to restore the status quo as it existed" before a federal court stripped the commission of the authority to regulate broadband providers and set rules that mandate open Internet.

The goal is to "fulfill the previously stated agenda of extending broadband to all Americans, protecting consumers, ensuring fair competition, and preserving a free and open Internet," the FCC official said.


While details of Thursday's announcement are scant, Genachowski's "third way approach" would seem skirt some of the debate over reclassification -- the rule-making process that could allow the FCC to institute tough net neutrality rules and implement challenged sections of its National Broadband Plan, but would also prompt quick legal challenges from broadband providers and telecommunications companies.

A federal court ruled last month that the FCC only had jurisdiction of Title II, or "telecommunications services," while broadband actually fell under Title I, or "information services." Rather than simply taking broadband and re-designating it as a telecommunications service, the commission would use a procedure called "forbearance" to pick and choose elements of Title II to apply to broadband providers.

Some of the provisions the FCC plans to apply -- which an official did not specify to Hillicon Valley on Wednesday -- would likely allow the agency to continue pursuing the net neutrality rules both Genachowski and President Barack Obama have long touted.

However, broadband and telecommunications companies are still likely to fight the FCC's move, even though its Title II-lite approach imposes far few regulations on them than re-classification. Comcast and Verizon were not immediately available for comment on Wednesday, though Verizon has in the past threatened to challenge any effort to regulate broadband in court. AT&T later declined to remark on the commission's latest move.
Still, the announcement is sure to satisfy net neutrality proponents, who balked at news earlier this week that the FCC might punt the issue to Congress.

"We have said all along that the commission should at a minimum consider a Title II approach and a Title II-lite approach, and this appears to be from the statement what he's going to do," said Art Brodsky, communications director for Public Knowledge. 

Josh Silver, executive director of Free Press, later described the FCC's plans as a coming "clear signal that they are backing away from the cliff."

"This is extremely welcome news," noted Silver, who only a few days ago excoriated Genachowski for jeopardizing his entire commission's central mission. "We reserve judgment, however, on whether the FCC has gone far enough to protect consumers with this new proposal."

Others, though, felt the FCC was about to go too far with its proposed regulations. Bruce Mehlman, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, even questioned the logic motivating the FCC's forthcoming decision.

“If the goal is maximizing broadband deployment and adoption under the Broadband Plan, new regulations such as these will not help," said Mehlman, whose group includes members such as AT&T. "This sounds more like a political solution likely to imperil investment than a policy initiative that tackles actual challenges in the marketplace.”