Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski on Thursday will announce a new agency initiative designed to resolve the legal issues raised by a recent court ruling that threw the agency's broadband regulatory authority into doubt, according to a senior FCC official.
The new approach indicates that Genachowski remains committed to "network neutrality," the idea that broadband providers should treat Web traffic equally, despite the recent court ruling in favor of cable TV and Internet access giant Comcast (CMCSA) in its long-fought case against the regulatory agency.
Met With Cautious Optimism
The new FCC policy -- which was greeted with cautious optimism by net neutrality advocates -- seeks to address the uncertainty that erupted after a federal appeals court ruled that the FCC lacked the authority to enforce its net neutrality rules.
"The Chairman will seek to restore the status quo as it existed prior to the court decision in order to fulfill the previously stated agenda of extending broadband to all Americans, protecting consumers, ensuring fair competition, and preserving a free and open Internet," the agency official said.
Despite a recent report suggesting that Genachowski is "expected" to keep broadband "deregulated," Genachowski's commitment to net neutrality remains unchanged, said a source familiar with the matter. This new policy appears to confirm that commitment.
Commitment to Free and Open Internet
Genachowski himself said as much last week, during an FCC open meeting in Seattle. "The recent court decision was, of course, an unfortunate development," Genachowski said. "But it has done nothing to weaken my unwavering commitment to ensuring that the free and open Internet is preserved and protected."
In the wake of the agency's recent setback, net neutrality advocates shifted their focus to two remedies: Congressional action giving the FCC regulatory power, or, reclassification of broadband service as a traditional telecommunications service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, a move vigorously opposed by the industry.
Broadband providers have been applying intense pressure to the FCC against reclassification -- much to the displeasure of pro-net neutrality forces. "There's a battle going on for the soul of Chairman Genachowski," said Art Brodsky, a spokesman for Public Knowledge, a Washington, D.C.-based pro-net neutrality group. "AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) have been putting on the full court press."
Genachowski Pursuing "Third Way"
The senior FCC official said Genachowski plans to proceed with a new approach, one that appears aimed at preserving net neutrality, while avoiding overly burdensome regulation. In doing so, Genachowski seems be seeking a Solomonic decision which, while not acceding fully to either side, won't thoroughly enrage them either.
The FCC official said Genachowski will announce a "third way" approach that will "apply to broadband transmission service only the small handful of Title II provisions that, prior to the Comcast decision, were widely believed to be within the Commission's purview." In an apparent effort to appease industry concern, the approach would erect "meaningful boundaries to guard against regulatory overreach."
Still, by seeking to apply some of the Title II provisions, Genachowski has clearly delivered a victory to pro-net-neutrality forces, even if his plan falls short of wholesale Title II classification.
Gigi B. Sohn, president and co-founder of Public Knowledge, called the FCC's new direction "a welcome announcement."
Strong Enough to Protect Consumers
"We have been saying for months that the FCC should consider a Title II solution to the problem of how to best protect consumers and expand broadband access and adoption in the U.S. since the Comcast case was decided," Sohn said. "We look forward to participating in this very crucial debate to ensure that even a 'weak' Title II will still be strong enough to protect consumers."
Josh Silver, president and CEO of Free Press, another pro-net neutrality group, echoed Sohn's optimism.
"The FCC is sending a clear signal that they are backing away from the cliff," Silver said. "It appears they are charting a path toward a sensible broadband policy framework that will protect consumers and promote universal access. This is extremely welcome news."
Still, Silver said his group isn't convinced "whether the FCC has gone far enough to protect consumers with this new proposal."
"We are eager to see the details and evaluate whether the Commission's approach is the best path toward achieving the goals of open, affordable, world-class Internet access," Silver said. "We are gratified that the calls from consumers and concerned Internet users across America are being heard. The Chairman is stepping up to the plate."
Lawmakers Lend Support
Meanwhile, on Wednesday, net neutrality advocates got a boost when two powerful lawmakers, Sen. Jay Rockefeller, a West Virginia Democrat, and Rep. Henry Waxman, a California Democrat, wrote the agency urging it to use whatever authority it still has to regulate broadband. The lawmakers said that the agency should consider reclassification and added that if Congressional action is needed, they would step up to the plate.
"We believe that it is essential for the commission to have oversight over these aspects of broadband policy, because they are vitally important to consumers and our growing digital economy," Rockefeller and Waxman wrote. To do this, they added, "The commission should consider all viable options. This includes a change in classification, provided that doing so entails a light regulatory touch."
"In the long term," the lawmakers added, "if there is a need to rewrite the law to provide consumers, the Commission and industry with a new framework for telecommunications policy, we are committed as Committee Chairmen to doing so."
Can Congress Really Act?
Brodsky of Public Knowledge was skeptical of Congressional action. "There are 250 bills that the House of Representatives has passed that are currently awaiting Senate action," Brodsky said. "You can't expect Congress to act because Congress doesn't act."
According to the senior FCC official, Genachowski seeks to move forward while avoiding either wholesale Title II reclassification or Congressional action.
FCC to Announce New Policy to Protect Net Neutrality