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What does the FCC's net neutrality vote mean?

Matt Hamblen | Feb. 27, 2015
Net neutrality has been debated for a decade, but the Federal Communications Commission's historic vote on Thursday signals only the beginning of further battles and likely lawsuits.

Net neutrality has been debated for a decade, but the Federal Communications Commission's historic vote on Thursday signals only the beginning of further battles and likely lawsuits.

At issue is how best to keep the Internet open and neutral to all while still giving Internet service providers sufficient incentive to expand their networks to serve more customers and to support an exploding array of data-hungry applications as futuristic as holographic videoconferencing used for home-based medical exams.

The FCC voted 3-to-2 to create a series of sweeping changes, including three open Internet conduct rules that block broadband providers, both wired and wireless, from blocking or throttling Internet traffic. The rules also ban broadband providers from taking payments to prioritize content and services over their networks.

The vote followed party lines, with Democrats Tom Wheeler, the chairman, and commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel voting in favor. Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly dissented.

The main legal instrument used by the FCC to put these rules in place comes through Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. Many cable, phone and wireless providers, including strong voices at AT&T and Verizon, objected to use of Title II, saying the rules would subject them to arduous and costly reviews — the same as other utilities like phone service — that will detract from their investments in growth and expansion. Opponents also predict that future FCC commissioners will try to impose tariffs and fee-setting regulations on Internet providers, although the newly adopted rules do not explicitly say so. An FCC summary states that broadband providers "shall not be subject to utility-style rate regulation." (The full ruling of the FCC is not expected for weeks.)

Title II supporters included FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, President Obama and many of the 4 million people, public interest groups and companies who submitted comments to the FCC on the issue. These supporters maintain that reclassifying broadband providers under Title II puts broadband, appropriately, in the category of other utilities, akin to a 21st century version of electricity or telephone service. The FCC outlined these so-called "Bright Line Rules" and other details in an online fact sheet and a press release.

Where it started

The primary motivation for Wheeler to propose these Open Internet rules was a U.S. Court of Appeals decision on Jan. 14, 2014 in the now-famous Verizon vs. FCC case which vacated existing FCC rules that preventing Internet blocking and unreasonable discrimination. Those earlier FCC rules had stemmed from two oft-cited FCC decisions: In 1995, the FCC found Madison River Communications had blocked Vonage Voice over IP services to some customers; In 2008, the FCC said Comcast was arbitrarily throttling BitTorrent traffic in violation of FCC principles. The FCC has outlined some of this history on its website.

 

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