Court backs FCC's cable label

Cablers won’t have to open their broadband pipes to rival Internet service providers, according to a Supreme Court ruling issued Monday.

Decision promised the Federal Communications Commission broad discretion and sent lower courts a message: Think twice before second-guessing the FCC.

New FCC chairman Kevin Martin was, naturally, “pleased that the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed the FCC’s ruling.”

“We can now move forward quickly to finalize regulations that will spur the deployment of broadband services for all Americans,” he said in a statement.

Ruling deals with how to classify cable transmissions, as information services — which means cablers won’t have to share their lines. Were they considered pure telecommunications services, they would.

In 2000, the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled that cable had elements of both. But the FCC dubbed cable transmissions strictly an information service, protecting operators. Santa Monica-based Internet service provider Brand X sued the FCC, and the Ninth Circuit Court backed the company — ruling that only Congress or the Supreme Court could reclassify cable as an information service. The FCC appealed, and the Supreme Court began hearing arguments in the case in March.

Technically, the high court has only kicked the case back to the Ninth Circuit — but with clear marching orders. It said, “We think that the FCC was right, and what you did was wrong,” said a former FCC official. “It’s highly unlikely the Ninth Circuit will salvage its opinion. It will not slap the Supreme Court in the face.”

“Today’s Supreme Court decision is a victory for consumers and maintains the momentum to advance broadband in the U.S. Classifying cable modem service as an interstate information service, as the FCC did, keeps this innovative service on the right deregulatory path,” said a statement from cable/telecom trade group NCTA.

Not so pleased: consumer advocates. The Washington, D.C.-based Center for Digital Democracy accused the court of paving “the way for a privatized, tightly controlled broadband environment that will bear little resemblance to the open, diverse and competitive Internet of the past.”

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