In a move that will stoke a battle over the future of the Internet, the U.S. government plans to propose regulating broadband lines under decades-old rules designed for traditional phone networks, The Wall Street Journal reported Thursday.
The decision, by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski, is likely to trigger a vigorous lobbying battle, arraying big phone and cable companies and their allies on Capitol Hill against Silicon Valley giants and consumer advocates.
Breaking a deadlock within his agency, Genachowski is expected Thursday to outline his plan for regulating broadband lines. He wants to adopt "net neutrality" rules that require Internet providers like Comcast Corp. and AT&T Inc. to treat all traffic equally, and not to slow or block access to websites.
The decision has been eagerly awaited since a federal appeals court ruling last month cast doubt on the FCC's authority over broadband lines, throwing into question Genachowski's proposal to set new rules for how Internet traffic is managed. The court ruled the FCC had overstepped when it cited Comcast in 2008 for slowing some customers' Internet traffic.
In a nod to such concerns, the FCC said in a statement that Genachowski wouldn't apply the full brunt of existing phone regulations to Internet lines and that he would set "meaningful boundaries to guard against regulatory overreach."
Some senior Democratic lawmakers provided Genachowski with political cover for his decision Wednesday, suggesting they wouldn't be opposed to the FCC taking the re-regulation route towards net neutrality protections.
At stake is how far the FCC can go to dictate the way Internet providers manage traffic on their multibillion-dollar networks. For the past decade or so, the FCC has maintained a mostly hands-off approach to Internet regulation.
Internet giants like Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and eBay Inc., which want to offer more web video and other high-bandwidth services, have called for stronger action by the FCC to assure free access to websites.
Cable and telecommunications executives have warned that using land-line phone rules to govern their management of Internet traffic would lead them to cut billions of capital expenditure for their networks, slash jobs and go to court to fight the rules.
Consumer groups hailed the decision Wednesday, an abrupt change from recent days, when they'd bombarded the FCC chairman with e-mails and phone calls imploring him to fight phone and cable companies lobbyists.
"On the surface it looks like a win for Internet companies," said Rebecca Arbogast, an analyst with Stifel Nicolaus. "A lot will depend on the details of how this gets implemented."