Critics attack US broadband plans

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Image caption, The FCC said broadband was "the greatest infrastructure challenge"

The Federal Communications Commission faces criticism amid reports that it will abandon plans to introduce tough rules to regulate broadband services.

Its power was recently called into question when a court ruled that it had no authority to sanction cable firm Comcast for slowing some net traffic.

The decision was a blow for "net neutrality" advocates, who argue that all web traffic should be equal.

Advocacy groups argue the FCC needs to regulate to prevent further problems.

However, the Washington Post has reported that the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) wants to keep broadband services deregulated.

At the moment the FCC has what is known as "ancillary" authority under so called "Title 1" rules over broadband providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon where they are lightly regulated.

In April the court ruled that two years ago the FCC had overstepped those powers when it sanctioned Comcast for slowing down certain types of traffic where subscribers were downloading large files.

One option open to the FCC is to reclassify broadband under "Title II" rules from an information service to a telecom service.

Industry watchers have predicted open warfare if this happens because it would allow the FCC to more closely oversee providers on issues such as charges, practices, regulations, facilities and so on for their services.

'Cop on the beat'

Following the court defeat, reports circulated in Washington that the FCC chairman Julius Genachowski will not reclassify broadband to allow for more regulation. The Washington Post said its sources claimed this was because it would be "overly burdensome on carriers and would deter investment".

Image caption, The FCC wants to boost net speeds from 4 megabits per second to 100Mbps

There has been a growing backlash among pressure groups following these reports and many have warned of disastrous consequences for consumers.

"If Chairman Genachowski fails to re-establish the FCC authority to protect internet users, he will be allowing companies like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon to slow down, block or censor at will," said Josh Silver, executive director of communications advocacy group Free Press.

"They can block any website, any blog post, any tweet, any outreach by a political campaign - and the FCC would be powerless to stop them. Without reclassification, nearly every broadband-related decision the agency makes from here forward will be aggressively challenged in court, and the FCC will likely lose."

Public Knowledge, a media public interest group agreed.

"The obvious solution that will protect consumers and fulfil the Obama administration's technology platform is to make sure broadband access is properly regulated so there is a cop on the beat for consumers," Art Brodsky told BBC News.

Industry solution

As the FCC continues to mull over the issue, one of the tech sector's largest advocacy organisations has argued for an industry solution to the problem.

The Information Technology Industry Council (ITIC) told BBC News that while it is still early days, it believed the way forward was through a private sector initiative.

"All the other solutions are ones that will take a fairly long time to effectuate," said ITIC president Dean Garfield.

"We are still at the early stages but everyone is trying to figure out a path that will work for both consumers as well as companies. The Title 1 - Title II argument is a Supreme Court issue. Private sector leadership is important here."

The Centre for Democracy and Technology acknowledged that industry can play a role but that ultimately the FCC has to assert its authority.

"There could be a positive role for industry to play here by talking about the kinds of practices that ought to be avoided and establish some norms," said David Sohn.

"But I still think at the end of the day it would be important to ensure the government has some ability to really play an oversight role here. The devil is in the detail and as yet the question of whatever principles they come up with and how strong they are are open to question."

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