A group of cable and telecom providers and their lobbying organizations is challenging the authority of communications regulators to impose binding regulations on the broadband sector.
In a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, Verizon, AT&T, Time Warner Cable and the principal trade groups for the wireless, cable and telecom industries urged the commission to look past the "alarmist rhetoric" of the groups appealing for a reclassification of broadband service under communications law that would clear the way for more vigorous regulatory oversight.
Citing a laundry list of prior court decisions and FCC rulings, the group argued that consumer broadband service has never been subject to the same common-carrier regulations as wireline telephone service, a prelude to the legal fight that would attend any effort to shift broadband to a so-called Title II telecommunications service.
"The commission is not free to change that classification simply because some parties might now prefer a different outcome," the group wrote in its letter. "The commission should categorically reject any proposal to 'reclassify' broadband Internet access as a Title II service."
The Title II debate has only recently emerged as the hot-button policy debate in Washington technology circles after a federal appeals court struck down the legal theory the FCC had used to enforce its broadband policy statement. That ruling vacated a 2008 order censuring Comcast for secretly blocking traffic on its data network, a decision that was hailed at the time by net neutrality proponents as a victory against ISPs seeking to discriminate against certain types of Internet content.
Now those same advocates are urging the FCC to regroup and firm up the legal classification of broadband to establish a solid framework in support of its regulatory authority.
"This latest letter from the telephone and cable industries is yet another sign that the industry will make any argument to avoid the simple fact that consumers deserve protection against companies block or degrade service and deserve more competition in Internet services," said Harold Feld, legal director at the group Public Knowledge.
Feld argued for a "light-touch" set of rules for broadband service providers, dismissing the industry's warning against full-throated FCC regulation of the Internet as a "red herring."
This latest tussle suggests that the chasm between the two groups has widened beyond differences over policy prescriptions to now include disputes over historical precedent. Each side accuses the other of revisionism.
At the FCC, the legal team continues to assess its options, knowing full well that any effort to define broadband as a Title II service would provoke a vigorous opposition campaign from the industry and, if enacted, lead to a lengthy fight in the courts.
The chairman, Julius Genachowski, has not staked out a position on the issue, instead arguing in his public comments that the Comcast decision did not impinge on the FCC's authority to enact most of the recommendations of the national broadband plan it delivered to Congress last month.
But consumer advocacy groups have warned that the court's ruling threatens to embolden ISPs to counter efforts at the commission to compel disclosures about pricing and connection speeds, as well as any sort of non-discrimination requirements.