FCC’s New Net Neutrality Rules to Regulate Wireless Lightly

The Federal Communications Commission is moving forward on a vote for long-promised net neutrality rules, fulfilling a goal Chairman Julius Genachoswski laid out more than a year ago. The rules, which will be voted on at the FCC’s Dec. 21 meeting, will prohibit Internet providers from blocking or slowing traffic, and is designed “to preserve the open Internet as a platform for innovation, investment, competition and free expression.” Genachoswki is expected to outline the framework for the rules in a speech later today.

The rules build off an earlier proposal by Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), laying out more stringent controls for wired broadband providers than wireless carriers. Wired Internet providers would allow customers to access all legal online content, applications and services, but would be able to apply network management techniques and charge users for different rates of service to handle traffic and other problems as long as they disclosed them to users. Wireless broadband providers, who have less bandwidth to work with, would also be prohibited from blocking access to websites or applications but would have greater freedom to apply management techniques, such as prioritizing certain applications and sites on their networks.

The proposal may not appease either side of the debate, who have been pressing the FCC. Internet service providers have pushed for no rules while Republicans in Congress have urged the FCC not to move forward on rules, and instead, let Congress handle it. Public interest groups and some Internet companies may also feel the protections aren’t strong enough. But the FCC appears intent on moving forward on the issue by the end of the year, trying to forge some kind of compromise under the current regulations.

The FCC was stymied in its efforts earlier this year when a federal court of appeals ruled it didn’t have the legal authority to regulate broadband. Rather than reclassifying broadband providers as common carriers, a move that would have faced even more opposition from ISPs, the FCC is trying to move ahead under its existing authority, a decision that will still likely face legal challenges in court.

In setting a vote, Genachowski appears to have the three votes necessary to move this forward this year before the new Congress comes in. In his speech, which has been shared with several news organizations, Genachowski will argue that rules are necessary to spread broadband services, a priority Congress set for the FCC.  “Broadband providers have natural business incentives to leverage their position as gatekeepers to the Internet,” according to the text of Genachowski’s speech. “The record in the proceeding we’ve run over the past year, as well as history, shows that there are real risks to the Internet’s continued freedom and openness.”

This is a major battle that has gotten even more interesting with the latest face-off between Comcast (c cmcsa) and Level 3 (s lvlt), a peering dispute between Internet providers that nonetheless has been framed by open Internet advocates as a net neutrality issue. The FCC vote may set some rules of the road, provided it’s passed, but with so many interests involved, this will hardly be the last word on the subject.

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