Technology & Science

U.S. paves way for net neutrality rules

U.S. regulators took an important step Thursday toward prohibiting broadband providers from favouring or discriminating against certain kinds of internet traffic.

U.S. regulators took an important step Thursday toward prohibiting broadband providers from favouring or discriminating against certain kinds of internet traffic.

Despite the concerns of the telecommunications industry and the agency's two Republicans, the Federal Communications Commission voted to begin writing so-called "network neutrality" regulations to prevent phone and cable companies from abusing their control over the market for broadband internet access.

FCC chairman Julius Genachowski said regulations are needed to ensure that broadband subscribers can access all legal websites and services, including internet calling applications and video sites that compete with the broadband companies' core businesses.

"Internet users should always have the final say about their online service," Genachowski said.

The FCC's two other Democrats voted to support his plan. The agency's two Republican commissioners voted merely to start the formal rule-making process, but said they have reservations about the substance of Genachowski's proposal.

Republican commissioner Robert McDowell said he remains unconvinced that broadband providers are engaging in widespread anticompetitive behaviour that requires government intervention.

"I do not share the majority's view that the internet is showing breaks and cracks, nor do I believe that the government is the best tool to fix it," he said.

Next up for the FCC is to actually craft the rules, with a vote on whether to adopt them expected to come by next summer.

Yet even as the net neutrality proceeding unfolds at the FCC, the courts and Congress may also become involved. With mounting Republican opposition on Capitol Hill, Senator John McCain on Thursday introduced a bill to block Genachowski's proposal.

The FCC proceeding culminates a five-year debate in Washington, D.C., that has pitted internet companies such as Google against some of the biggest U.S. phone and cable companies — including AT&T, Verizon Communications Inc. and Comcast Corp. The move also comes a day after the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission unveiled its own net neutrality framework, to mixed reactions.

In the United States, the broadband providers insist they need flexibility, free from government intervention, to keep their networks running smoothly and prevent high-bandwidth applications such as streaming video from hogging too much capacity. They also warn that net neutrality regulations would discourage them from expanding and upgrading their networks.

"We continue to hope that any rules adopted by the commission will not harm the investment and innovation that has made the internet what it is today," Comcast executive vice-president David Cohen said in a statement.

But companies such as Google,, eBay's Skype and Facebook argue that without such rules, the broadband companies will become online gatekeepers that can prioritize their own online services or those of their business partners — and potentially put others at a disadvantage.

Democrats support rules

That point was echoed by several key Democrats in Congress on Thursday.

"We need to ensure that special interests cannot erect toll booths on the information superhighway that impede the innovation that has helped power our economy and create jobs," said Representative Edward Markey of Massachusetts, a member of the House subcommittee that oversees technology and the internet.

Genachowski's plan calls for the agency to formally adopt four broadband principles that have guided the FCC's enforcement of communications laws on a case-by-case basis. Those principles state that network operators must allow subscribers to access all online content, applications, services and devices as long as they are legal.

The FCC relied on those guidelines last year when it ordered Comcast to stop blocking subscribers from using the online file-sharing service BitTorrent, which is used, often by corporations selling commercial software, to transfer big files such as online video. Comcast is appealing the decision, arguing that the agency doesn't have authority to mandate nondiscrimination rules, and a court ruling in its favour could undermine the current proceeding.

Genachowski also wants the FCC to adopt two additional principles that would bar broadband providers from discriminating against particular content or applications and require them to disclose network management practices.

And he is seeking to apply all six rules across all types of broadband networks, including wireless systems, which have been largely unregulated.

The commission still has a number of difficult issues to sort through as it drafts the regulations. Those include determining what constitutes legitimate network management by the broadband providers to handle congestion and offer specialized services, such as telemedicine, that may require dedicated bandwidth.

The agency will also have to determine how to apply net neutrality rules to wireless networks, which face bandwidth constraints because of limitations on the amount of available electromagnetic spectrum.