On Tuesday April 6, 2010 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a ruling that the FCC lacks the authority to require broadband providers to provide equal treatment to all Internet traffic on their networks. The nation’s largest cable company Comcast Corp. obtained the victory over the FCC in this case. Comcast had challenged the FCC’s authority about imposing “network neutrality” regulations on broadband providers.
The FCC is trying to adopt a series of net neutrality regulations to prevent phone and cable companies from using their control over internet access to provide favorable services to online content over others. The unanimous ruling in this case is a serious setback for the FCC’s plans.
The reason for this case deals with Comcast’s actions in 2007 when it interfered with an internet file sharing service that allows users to share large files like movies over the internet. While based upon that type of situation many public interest groups are up in arms over the ruling because the ramifications of such a ruling spread much farther than file sharing. Essentially this ruling takes away the ability of the FCC to prevent broadband providers from being the gatekeepers for many online services such as browser based software and Internet phone programs.
Gigi Sohn, co-founder of Public Knowledge stated “Today’s appeals court decision means there are no protections in the law for consumers’ broadband services.” And “Companies selling internet access are free to play favorites with content on their networks, the throttle certain applications of simply to block others.”
The decision also creates serious problems for the FCC’s plan to restructure and provide a national broadband plan. To push forward with this plan to expand broadband services the FCC needs a clear authority to regulate and control broadband. The FCC states that it is and will continue to be “firmly committed to promoting an open Internet and to policies that will bring the enormous benefits of broadband to all Americans.”
There are a few options open to the FCC after this ruling. It could ask Congress to grant it full authority to regulate broadband or it could appeal the decision handed down on Tuesday. The FCC could also reclassify broadband as a more heavily regulated telecommunications service as opposed to its current classification as a lightly regulated information service.
This battle over the FCC’s authority is simply another turn on a long and winding road concerning net neutrality. FCC supporters Google and Skype agree that rules are needed to prevent phone and cable companies from prioritizing their favorites and degrading services that may interfere with their core business. For example Bit-Torrent the file sharing service at the center of this appeal is used to transfer large online files which have the potential to impact Comcast’s cable television business.
On the other hand Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon feel that after spending billions of dollars on their networks they should be able to make decisions regarding the usage of the system and to offer premium services while preventing high-bandwidth applications from greedily taking up all the capacity of the network.