This post was written by Judith L. Harris and Amy Mushahwar.
The Federal Communications Commission (“FCC”) has just voted to open a formal proceeding regarding how best to respond to the D.C. Circuit’s decision in Comcast v. FCC (see our previous blog post, FCC Caught by (not in) the Web). In the Comcast case, the court reversed an FCC decision finding that Comcast had violated the Commission’s non-discrimination principles by interfering with traffic from broadband subscribers using an online peer-to-peer file-sharing technology from BitTorrent. The appellate court ruled the Commission, under the FCC’s previous (Republican) Chairman Kevin Martin, had improperly stretched its ancillary jurisdiction pursuant to Title I of the Communications Act to enforce one of its net neutrality principles against an Internet services provider. Earlier, the Commission had classified Internet access as an information service, only subject to light-touch Title I regulation, rather than as a telecommunications service, subject to more extensive Title II regulation, traditionally applied to common carriers.
At stake, in the minds of many, is nothing less than the future of the Internet: whether it is to be free and open and, assuming so, who is best positioned to determine what that means. In the eyes of some, especially the large Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon Wireless and AT&T, a free and open Internet equates to a complete government hands-off approach. Investment and innovation has flourished under the prior deregulatory steps, they argue. Others, especially edge players, including content and application providers such as Google, Amazon.com and Apple, focus on increasing Internet facilities consolidation and vertical integration in the industry. They see the need for a “cop on the beat” and explicit (e.g., net neutrality) rules to insure that those who control the “pipes” don’t interfere with consumer choice and play favorites when it comes to content.
In the two months that have ensued since the Comcast decision, handed down only two weeks after the FCC’s release of the Congressionally mandated National Broadband Plan, the debate has raged as to whether, and if so, how, the FCC should proceed to exercise oversight over the activities of Internet service providers. Not surprisingly, the question of increasing significance is where the FCC might turn for the power it needs to implement many of the recommendations contained in the National Broadband Plan. Everyone, it seems, has weighed in, from all branches of government (the White House, Congress and all the Commissioners at the FCC), to all of the private stakeholders, trade associations, coalitions that have come into existence to lobby the issue, media, academics, and Wall Street analysts (witnessing the recent volatility of ISP stocks).
Yesterday’s action by the FCC finally gets the ball really rolling. While Congress has threatened legislation (in both directions) and a court challenge is inevitable no matter where the Commission ends up, the FCC’s 3-2 decision opening this new proceeding is a necessary first step in breaking the current logjam.
The Notice of this new action is worded in neutral terms and presents three alternative solutions to the Commission’s current dilemma. The Notice also seeks other ideas from the public. However, FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has made no secret of the course he prefers. In the aftermath of the Comcast ruling, he outlined what he dubbed a “third way,” (the third option, obviously not accidentally, in yesterday’s Notice). His approach, he believes, represents a middle road between continuing to limp along regulating ISPs under Title I, despite the limited power that would afford the FCC to implement some aspects of the National Broadband Plan, and simply reclassifying broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II, with the potential that would introduce for heavy-handed regulation – such things as oversight of rates and the imposition of interconnection and unbundling obligations. This “third way” envisioned by Chairman Genowchowski, WOULD involve Title II reclassification, but would also include explicit forbearance from use of those powers most feared by telcos and cable companies.
One thing is clear: it’s going to be a long, hot summer in Washington. The Chairman is determined to keep the proceeding moving (perhaps in part to encourage industry and public/private working groups that have already sprouted to come up with a negotiated solution). Comments from the public are due July 15, 2010, less than 30 days from now, with reply comments due August 12, 2010. An Order by the Commission is expected before year-end (and the start of a new Congress), with a decision possible as early as October. The effect of the outcome of the midterm elections and, before then, the tremendous amounts of money the upcoming election will infuse into the system from all of the stakeholders, create wildcards. The stakes are high; the decisions are likely to affect the shape of the Internet for a very long time.
Whether you want more information or need help filing comments with the FCC, look no further than our own Judith L. Harris and Amy Mushahwar in our D.C. office – authorities in the area. Of course, you can always call me, Joseph I. Rosenbaum, or any Rimon attorney with whom you regularly work.