“Broadband and the F.C.C.”
May 18, 2010, 3:00am

From The New York Times.

The Republican attack on the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal to classify broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service sounded a lot like the G.O.P. talking points on health care reform.

The House minority leader, John Boehner, said it was a “government takeover of a large portion of the private sector.” It’s a colorful statement, but wrong.

The new classification is a measured attempt to ensure regulatory oversight over what is fast becoming the nation’s most vital communications network. It was announced after an appeals court ruled against an attempt by the F.C.C. to guarantee open access to the Internet under the terms established by the Bush administration, which classified broadband as an information channel for the purpose of freeing it from regulation.

The F.C.C.’s new classification is sensible. The pipes through which our data flow provide as much of a telecommunications service as the phone lines that carry our voices. Just the other day, The Times reported that data flowing over mobile devices surpassed voice calls.

These pipes are controlled by a handful of corporations. In some areas of the country, there is only one broadband provider. And service is expensive. A monthly broadband subscription in the United States costs about $8 for each advertised megabit per second, on average. In Britain it costs $1.98 and in Japan $2.33, according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

With broadband companies eager to “manage” the data flow on their networks, there is potential for abuse. The lawsuit that led to the F.C.C.’s reclassification arose from its attempt to stop Comcast from blocking access to peer-to-peer file-sharing sites. Classifying broadband access as telecommunication would give the F.C.C. authority to enforce much-needed rules to guarantee an open, nondiscriminatory and competitive market for Internet access and protect consumers’ rights online.

The argument that the F.C.C. wants to take over the Internet is a red herring. The commission stated that it will invoke only a narrow set of the Telecommunications Act’s provisions to regulate phone networks. It explicitly vowed not to invoke many old cumbersome provisions, such as price regulation.

Cable and phone companies fear the F.C.C.’s forbearance will be challenged in court, and that broadband access providers risk being tied up in a mass of new regulations. But this kind of regulatory forbearance is hardly new. Indeed, it has allowed the cellphone industry to grow under a reasonable standard of regulation despite being indisputably a telecom service.

The reclassification of broadband might not have been needed had Comcast not challenged the F.C.C.’s authority to enforce nondiscrimination rules under the prior definition of broadband. Some broadband companies now wish it had not. But the fact remains that the dominant telecommunications network of the 21st century requires regulatory oversight. At this juncture, the F.C.C.’s path is the right path forward.