FCC proposes net neutrality Third Way

A Comcast cable modem sitting on a tabletop

The FCC has proposed a Third Way for net neutrality that shields broadband companies from full telecommunications regulation but prevents them from charging customers the way cell phone companies do. Flickr photo.

Net neutrality, in a nutshell is fast, open, equal and affordable Internet access to all Americans. Some broadband providers have proposed to start charging more to their customers for higher levels of service, much like cell phone companies. The Federal Communications Commission started an uproar in the net neutrality debate on Thursday when it announced that it will seek public comment on imposing new regulations on Internet service providers to keep them from offering tiered service. Meanwhile, there’s an effort on Capitol Hill to define more clearly the FCC’s authority. But the FCC doesn’t want to wait for Congress to get around to it before it regains control of the net neutrality issue

FCC net neutrality

Consumer groups and free speech advocate groups such as savetheinternet.com are in favor of net neutrality. Internet service providers and free market advocates are against it. Until last week the two proposed versions of net neutrality legislation would prohibit: (1) the “tiering” of broadband through sale of voice- or video-oriented Quality of Service packages; and (2) content- or service-sensitive blocking or censorship on the part of broadband carriers. Last week, the FCC released what is called the “Third Way” plan.

Net neutrality: The Third Way

Net neutrality under the third way, according to the Washington Post, is this: Currently, broadband is defined as an information service, which means it doesn’t face much FCC oversight. The new plan is to shift broadband into the same classification as telephone service, which would trigger more oversight by the agency. The FCC says it would not subject Internet service providers to the full brunt of regulation that would come with the new classification.

Comcast net neutrality case

The FCC’s Third Way is an effort to regain control of the net neutrality issue in response to a Federal Court decision in April that overturned a 2008 FCC ruling in the Comcast net neutrality case. In 2007, Comcast was found to be blocking or severely delaying BitTorrent uploads on their network, claiming that downloading huge amounts of data was clogging the network. In August 2008, the FCC ruled that Comcast broke the law when it throttled the bandwidth available to certain customers for video files in order to make sure that other customers had adequate bandwidth.

Time Warner net neutrality challenge

In a 2009 test of the net neutrality issue,Time Warner Cable announced its intention offer broadband packages in 10GB, 20GB, 40GB and 60GB increments. The plans included overage charges of $1 per GB, capped at $75. Time Warner launched the pricing system in several markets to much public outcry. Later the company announced that it would offer larger packages but public discontent remained. They were eventually forced to abandon the Time Warner net neutrality challenge altogether.

Net neutrality supporters

The FCC voted Thursday to start the controversial process of reclassifying high-speed Internet access to give the agency authority over service providers that would prevent disparate treatment of customers. The Channel Web reports that last week, a group of 13 companies including Amazon, Google  and Sony sent the FCC a letter in support of the Third Way saying that it will ensure that consumers have access to an open Internet, one that would preserve a level playing field for all participants. The net neutrality supporters said the Third Way does so without regulating the Internet but by applying basic rules of the road to the transmission services that provide access to the Internet.

Against net neutrality

Republicans in Congress are adamantly against net neutrality any which way. The Los Angeles Times reports that Republicans offer the familiar argument that the Third Way is more government meddling in a free market that will stunt innovation and investment, echoing their Internet-service provider patrons. Texas Republican senator Kay Bailey Hutchison speaking out against net neutrality said the agency has created “new burdensome regulations that threaten to stifle the growth of America’s broadband services.”

Google net neutrality letter

But Google cheered the FCC’s decision. “As we have said before, broadband infrastructure is too important to be left outside of any oversight,” the company said on The Official Google Blog. Massachusetts Democratic senator Edward J. Markey applauded the FCC’s move, calling it a “light-touch regulatory proposal” that would ensure “continued innovation, consumer protection and certainty in the broadband marketplace.”

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