In a party line vote, the FCC voted 3-2 to begin a process that would grant itself authority to regulate the transmission component of broadband Internet service.
The vote formally begins a period of public comment on the proposal to overturn a previous commission ruling that classified broadband transmission as a lightly regulated information service. The action would designate broadband transmission as a telecommunications service, making it subject to stricter regulation.
FCC chairman Julius Genachowski called the proposal a "third way," keeping only regulations that are necessary "to implement fundamental universal service, competition and market entry, and consumer protection policies." The proposal would not regulate Internet content.
The FCC began reconsidering its broadband regulation policies after a federal court of appeals in April invalidated the approach that the commission had long taken. That decision involved the commission's ability to require that Internet service providers not discriminate against any content or application. The commission claimed that Comcast had done just that in blocking access by its users to BitTorrent, a file-sharing service.
"The third way approach was developed out of a desire to restore the status quo light-touch framework that existed prior to the court case," Genachowski said. "Let's not pretend that the problems with the state of broadband in America don't exist; let's not pretend that the risk of excessive regulation is not real, or, at the other extreme, that the absence of basic protections for competition and consumers is acceptable."
Supporters of network neutrality, including many major computing companies, said such new rules are necessary to prevent phone and cable companies from blocking or degrading online calling services, Internet video and other applications that compete with their core businesses.
Democratic commissioners Michael J. Copps and Mignon Clyburn joined Genachowski in voting to open the comment process, while Republicans Meredith Attwell Baker and Robert M. McDowell opposed it.
In her dissenting statement, Baker said the proposal "will place the heavy thumb of government on the scale of a free market to the point where innovation and investment in the 'core' of the Net are subjected to the whims of 'Mother-May-I' regulators."
Genachowski's plan faces resistance from the broadband providers themselves, including AT&T and Verizon Communications, the largest wireless carriers. They contend it opens the door to onerous and outdated regulations that would discourage them from upgrading their networks.
"This FCC proposal could call into question the business assumptions underlying multibillion-dollar broadband investments," Howard Waltzman, a former Republican staffer on the House Commerce Committee who is representing telephone companies as a partner with Mayer Brown.
Many Republicans and even some Democrats on Capitol Hill also oppose Genachowski's plan. At least one House Republican, Rep. John Culberson of Texas, has proposed blocking funding for the FCC if it pursues the plan.