With a 3-2 vote, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approved new rules this morning regarding two big issues: Net neutrality and municipal broadband. Chairman Tom Wheeler previously called his plan, now 317 pages, “the strongest open-Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC.”
By using its power under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act, the FCC reclassified broadband Internet as a telecommunications service. The new classification allows the commission to put in place regulations mandating that Internet service providers (ISPs) like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T, transmit all Web traffic at the same speed, regardless of commercial interests. This idea of “open Internet,” commonly known as Net neutrality, ensures that as long as the content requested is lawful, it will all be delivered at the same speed.
“The Internet is simply too important to allow broadband providers to be the ones making the rules,” Wheeler said prior to the vote. “This is no more a plan to regulate the Internet than the First Amendment is a plan to regulate free speech. They both stand for the same concept: openness, expression and an absence of gatekeepers telling people what they can do, where they can go and what they can think.”
Net neutrality opponents argue that these regulations will hurt competition, make networks less profitable and discourage investment. Those who advocate for the FCC’s new rules, however, say that Net neutrality will make the Internet more hospitable to new projects by leveling the playing field. The new municipal broadband rules, they also argue, will pave the way for a more diverse collection of Internet providers.
More than a dozen states have laws either prohibiting or restricting local governments from building their own broadband networks. Wilson, North Carolina, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, both of which have their own public networks, petitioned the FCC prior to the vote to be able to expand their networks despite state laws prohibiting it. The FCC’s newly implemented rules override these state restrictions. The commission also reserved the right to intercede on municipalities behalf if it appears that local or state government is getting in the way of expanding or bettering broadband.
“Those who are condemned to second-rate broadband are a message to all of us,” Wheeler said. “This decision is for the right of Americans, through their own elected local officials, to make their own decision about their broadband future.”
The vote comes after more than a decade of debate, and more than a year after Verizon successfully shot down the FCC’s last attempt at Net neutrality rules. Since then, the FCC has received more than 4 million comments from Americans, which overwhelmingly urged the commission to craft strong rules to protect open Internet.
Like the FCC’s prior attempts, the newly passed rules are expected to face legal challenges from ISPs. If the FCC is sued, appeals could take years. Additionally, the fact the vote broke along party lines suggests challenges from Republicans may be on the horizon. The Republican-led House and Senate could potentially pass federal restrictions limiting the FCC’s power to implement its rules. We’ll have to wait and see.