Page last updated at 10:20 GMT, Friday, 11 June 2010 11:20 UK

US debates its broadband future

By Maggie Shiels
Technology reporter, BBC News, Silicon Valley

Ethernet cable, Eyewire
The FCC wants all data to be treated equally

Plans for the future of the internet in the US are "under siege" by powerful interests, warns the Federal Communications Commission.

The warning was given by Commissioner Michael Copps as the agency prepares for a vote on its plans for the development of broadband in the US.

The plan followed a court decision that the FCC had no authority to stop ISPs slowing traffic to some users

The ruling was a blow to a central tenet of the agency's broadband plan.

That plan aims to to provide every American in the country with high speed internet access by 2020.

Enshrined in the FCC plan is strong backing for so-called "net neutrality" principles. This means that all web data is treated equally and stops ISPs favouring some traffic in preference to others.

'The third way'

The court decision put a question mark over the FCC's ability to enforce these principles and put the broadband plan in legal limbo.

In response, the FCC decided to reclassify internet services from an information service to a telecommunications service. Under present rules broadband providers like Comcast, AT&T and Verizon are lightly regulated.

Reclassification gives the Commission greater authority and it has drawn up a so-called "third way" to help assuage opponents and perhaps stave off a long legal fight.

Under this approach, the agency has said it will set aside moves to regulate rates charged by telephone and cable companies for internet services, as well as that of internet content, services, applications or electronic commerce sites.

Mr Copps warned that the proposal was not guaranteed to be approved.

"If the Commission fails to reassert its authority, then the days of the open internet will be succeeded by the age of the gatekeepers," said Commissioner Copps.

"Make no mistake about it. This is not going to be an easy fight. The big telephone and cable companies are doing everything they can to prevent the reclassification of internet access services. They have redeployed their troops at the FCC, throughout Washington and in the blogosphere."


Mr Copps' comments came during a visit to Silicon Valley in which he visited Google and Apple to discuss support for the broadband plan.

As the Commission's longest serving member, Mr Copps said he wanted to publicise the issue because he was worried that telecoms and other well funded lobbying groups would drown out the voices of the ordinary citizen.

He said it needed to be more than an issue debated only in Washington among politicians and advisors.

"People need to realise that meeting the broadband challenge is something really important in their lives and for their futures," he told the BBC. "And they need to understand that a competitive nation cannot tolerate digital divides between haves and have nots."

'Rules of the road'

A week ahead of the FCC's vote on reclassification, the nation's biggest broadband providers and a number of hi-tech firms created a group to draw up voluntary guidelines in a bid to appease regulators pushing for stronger internet access rules.

The Broadband Internet Technical Advisory Group, formed by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, Google, Intel and Microsoft, will "develop consensus on broadband network management practices or other related technical issues that can affect users' internet experience".

"This or any other voluntary effort is not a substitute for the government setting basic rules of the road for the internet, said Chris Riley, policy counsel at Free Press a Washington based advocacy group.

"Allowing industry to set its own rules is like allowing BP to regulate its drilling."

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