Official: FCC to propose 'Net neutrality' rules

The head of the FCC plans to propose new rules that would prohibit Internet service providers from interfering with the free flow of information and certain applications over their networks, an official at the agency said Saturday.

The Federal Communications Commission chairman, Julius Genachowski, will announce the proposed rules in a speech Monday at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank, the official said on condition of anonymity because news of the announcement had not been formally released.

The proposals would uphold a pledge Barack Obama made during the presidential campaign to support Internet neutrality — the equal treatment of Internet traffic. That would bar Internet service providers such as Verizon Communications Inc., Comcast Corp. or AT&T Inc., from slowing or blocking certain services or content flowing through their vast networks.

Without strict rules ensuring Net neutrality, consumer watchdogs fear the communications companies could interfere with the transmission of content, such as TV shows delivered over the Internet, that compete with services the ISPs offer, like cable television.

Internet providers have opposed regulations that would inhibit the way they control their networks, arguing they need to be able to make sure applications that consume a lot of bandwidth don't slow Internet access to other users.

"This is about whether I can turn off my cable TV and watch TV over the Internet," said Dave Burstein, editor of the DSL Prime broadband industry newsletter. "Comcast cares about this because they don't want people to turn off their cable TV."

The FCC adopted four principles on Internet policy in 2005. Two years later, it said it would study the business practices of high-speed Internet providers and consider whether a principle of nondiscrimination in traffic should be added.

Burstein thinks the FCC probably will adopt a fifth principle on nondiscrimination as part of the expected new rules.

The FCC's existing net neutrality principles have focused on high-speed Internet access delivered over wireline systems. But Google Inc. and other big technology companies, as well as consumer advocacy groups, have called for rules that would require wireless networks to be similarly open to all devices and applications.

UBS analyst John Hodulik said extending the principles to the wireless arena is going to be "a bit difficult because the regulation of wireless is very different than the regulation of the wireline networks, where the FCC has played a much stronger role."

"In wireless, these companies typically have paid billions of dollars to buy licenses ... and now operate in a very independent market with absolutely no government subsidies or government involvement," he said. "So it would be a new era of regulation for what is a very competitive market."

But the rules' effectiveness "really depends on the details," Hodulik added. "These could be just relatively vague rules that prevent obvious forms of discrimination, like blocking a website or mowing down the packets from a competitor's service."

The FCC official declined to elaborate on the new rules, but said the agency wants to create a baseline standard for all platforms that deliver the Internet.

The proposed new rules were reported earlier by The Washington Post, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal.

"We are concerned about the unintended consequences that Net neutrality regulation would have on investments from the very industry that's helping to drive the U.S. economy," Chris Guttman-McCabe, a vice president at CTIA, a wireless trade group, told the Post.

The FCC began wading into the issue even before Genachowski became FCC chairman. Last year the FCC rebuked Comcast for blocking or delaying some forms of Internet file-sharing. Comcast agreed to stop the practice.

A spokeswoman for Philadelphia-based Comcast declined to comment on the FCC's planned announcement. A spokesman for Verizon of New York did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment.

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