SAN JOSE – After a 14-month debate, the U.S. Federal Communications Commission split along party lines to narrowly pass what its chairman called the first enforceable rules for the Internet. The so-called Net neutrality ruling faced criticism from both parties as going too far and not far enough in protecting the openness of the Web.
Implications of the ruling will be debated for months and are expected to see fierce court challenges over whether the FCC has the authority to regulate the Internet. If it passes muster in the courts, it is likely to face a trial in the marketplace as the agency tries to enforce the ruling's sometimes general and untested terms.
A copy of the ruling has yet to be publically issued. A final draft was released to commissioners just before midnight last night, raising ire from two Republicans on the five-member panel who voted against the plan.
"My office did not receive a copy until 11:30 last night, and it had significant changes [from the previous draft]—it's inexcusable," said Meredith Attwell Baker, one of the dissenting commissioners.
The ruling was essentially based on the so-called Waxman compromise draft by Rep. Henry Waxman (D, Calif.).
In broad terms it states wired Internet service providers cannot block any lawful content, services, devices or applications from running on their networks. They must disclose their network management practices on their Web sites and at the point of sale.
Rules for wireless carriers are less rigorous, in part in recognition of the still-emerging nature of wireless broadband. They are not allowed to block competing voice or video services, but they have more latitude about use of applications on their networks.
One of the most significant areas addressed in the ruling speaks to whether carriers can charge different fees for different levels of service, called paid prioritization. The ruling suggests tiered pricing plans won't be rejected out of hand but may come under close FCC scrutiny for whether they are discriminatory.
"There is significant concern about pay for priority being unreasonable, but it's not ruled out," said one FCC staffer at a press conference after the vote.
The area is particularly sensitive for chip and system vendors supporting increasingly popular deep-packet inspection capabilities. DPI technology is used to determine the content of traffic flows so it can be optimally routed. It also enables carriers to define and tag services for which it could charge higher fees.
Finally, the FCC defined a class of emerging so-called specialized services that it will monitor but not regulate.
The ruling allows any consumer to lodge for free a complaint against a provider on the FCC's Web site.
The FCC's legal staff will use several aspects of Section 706 of the 1996 Telecom Act as its authority to enforce the rules. One part of that law calls for the FCC to take action if it finds deployment of broadband is not proceeding at a reasonable pace. The FCC made such a finding in July 2010, said an FCC attorney.