FCC approves net neutrality rules

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) yesterday approved new net neutrality rules in a three-to-two vote. The changes, proposed by Chairman Tom Wheeler, will apply not only to broadband providers, but also to mobile providers as well as fixed line providers.

The what

  • Broadband access will be reclassified as a telecommunications service, and therefore subject to more stringent regulation
  • Broadband connections cannot be blocked or sped up for a fee
  • So-called ‘paid prioritisation’ where providers strike deals with content companies to allow smoother delivery of traffic to consumers has been disallowed
  • Interconnection deals (content companies paying broadband providers to connect to their networks) will be regulated
  • Firms can complain to the FCC if they feel that unjust fees have been levied
  • The FCC won't apply some sections of the new rules, including price controls

The why

The call for change in net neutrality rules came just over a year ago, in January 2014, as a result of a legal action taken by broadband provider Verizon, which challenged the existing guidelines. The court found that internet providers had been improperly regulated by the FCC, as if they were similar to a public utility, when officially they were classified as information services.

The ruling prompted calls for the reclassification of broadband as a utility, as well as triggering rumours that the Commission planned to rewrite the rules to allow ‘internet fast lanes’. A record four million comments were sent to the regulator, with campaigners protesting outside its Washington headquarters. President Obama eventually intervened, and urged the FCC to implement the “strongest possible” rules.

The who - for

Net neutrality had been endorsed by a coalition of 16,000 websites, including Tumblr, Mozilla and Yelp.

Etsy’s CEO, Chad Dickerson, who spoke before the commission, applauded the FCC for putting into place “bright line” rules, and “voting to protect the Internet”. Ahead of the vote, commissioners heard from a variety of advocates, including web founder Sir Tim Berners-Lee, who said the vote “preserves the ethos of permissionless innovation that’s always been at the heart of the Internet”.

The Columbia Law School who originally coined the phrase ‘net neutrality’, Prof Tim Wu, welcomed the ruling: “It is a historic day in the history of the internet. Net neutrality, long in existence as a principle, has been codified in a way that will likely survive court scrutiny. More generally, this marks the beginning of an entirely new era of how communications are regulated in the United States.”

Of course, not everyone’s happy.

The who - against

Not surprisingly, the broadband providers themselves are not happy about the new rules - Verizon Communications, AT&T and Comcast have all opposed reclassification of broadband.

The US Telecommunications Industry Association says the new rules will prompt “immediate” legal action by broadband providers attempting to dispute the decision, with any potential court case lasting years.

Broadband provider Verizon labelled the rules as “written in the era of the steam locomotive and the telegraph”. The company’s statement went on to say: “History will judge today's actions as misguided”.

The FCC commissioners voted along party lines, with the two Republicans protesting the order. Republican Commissioner Ajit Pai argued: “Put simply, President Obama’s plan to regulate the Internet is not the solution to a problem. His plan is the problem.”


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Kate Hoy

Kate Hoy is Editor of IDG Connect

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