The FCC is delaying action on proposed rules of the road for the Internet, choosing instead to seek more public input on how and whether net neutrality regulations should apply to wireless access and a new category of specialized services.
While FCC chairman Julius Genachowski says that the additional time is needed given the issue’s complexities, the move pushes back any action for almost two months, and more than likely until after the November election.
That came as a disappointment to public interest groups that have been pushing the FCC to take quick action after almost a year of seeking input on net neutrality rules, which would prohibit Internet providers from favoring one type of content traffic over another.
The idea of net neutrality has often pitted Internet providers, including cable and telecom companies, against consumer groups and content companies, like Google and Amazon, who have warned that without rules, broadband risks developing into the pay-for-play tiered system of cable TV.
But the dynamics of the debate changed considerably last month, when Google and Verizon offered up a proposed compromise, in which net neutrality rules would apply to the wired Internet but not to wireless. In addition, broadband providers would have flexibility to offer up certain “differentiated online services,” like high-definition video, online gaming and medical monitoring, at a premium as that would be part of a dedicated network.
“Recent events have highlighted questions on how open Internet rules should apply to ‘specialized’ services and to mobile broadband — what framework will guarantee Internet freedom and openness, and maximize private investment and innovation,” Genachowski said in a statement. “As we’ve seen, the issues are complex, and the details matter.”
The FCC was headed toward a vote on the rules earlier this year until it lost a legal battle to Comcast in April, putting the commission’s legal standing to regulate the Internet in doubt.
Genachowski’s solution has been to reclassify the Internet as a “Title II” telecommunications service. He has the votes to do it — two fellow FCC commissioners, Michael Copps and Mignon Clyburn, say they favor the plan — but the proposal has triggered fierce opposition from cable and telecom companies as well as Republicans and a sizable number of Democrats on Capitol Hill.
While some lawmakers are calling for Congress to take action to establish the FCC’s authority, such an action is ever more unlikely with the approaching midterm elections, and perhaps out of the question if Republicans gain control of one or more of both chambers of Congress.
David Sutphen, co-chair of the Internet Innovation Alliance, an org of telecom and business groups, said that the Title II classification could invite a legal challenge that could create even more uncertainty for Internet providers, curbing further innovation. The Google-Verizon plan “at least creates an environment where you can see a structured solution,” he said.
The Google-Verizon proposal was intended to find common ground on the contentious issue, but it landed with a thud among some consumer groups, who say that by exempting wireless from the net neutrality rules they are providing a huge loophole. Instead, the compromise seems to have only reinforced their sense of urgency for regulators to act.
“The FCC continues to kick the can down the road and prolong this process, but the longer the FCC ponders the politics of net neutrality, the longer consumers are left unprotected,” Derek Turner, research director of Free Press, said in a statement. “It is time for the FCC to stop writing notices and start making clear rules of the road.”