- Associated Press - Wednesday, December 1, 2010

WASHINGTON (AP) - A proposal to prohibit broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against Internet traffic flowing over their networks has an uncertain future with just lukewarm support from large phone and cable service providers and fierce opposition from Republicans.

The fate of the “network neutrality” plan crafted by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, Julius Genachowski, will ultimately lie with his two fellow Democrats on the five-member commission. For now, it’s unclear how they will vote when the agency considers the proposal this month.

“Today is the beginning of an important discussion, and not the end,” one of those two commissioners, Michael Copps, said in a statement Wednesday. “At issue is who will control access to the online experiences of consumers _ consumers themselves or Big Phone and Big Cable gatekeepers.”

The proposal has won grudging support from several big phone and cable companies, including AT&T Inc. and Comcast Corp., and at least a few public interest groups. But Republicans in Congress and at the FCC call it an effort to regulate the Internet.

Genachowski’s widely anticipated plan, which he laid out in a speech Wednesday, is the product of months of negotiations to find middle ground in a policy dispute that pitted phone and cable giants against a number of Internet companies and public interest groups. Net neutrality rules were one of the Obama administration’s top campaign pledges to the technology industry and have been among Genachowski’s priorities since he took over the FCC more than a year ago.

Many big Internet companies, such as search leader Google Inc. and calling service Skype, insist regulations are needed to ensure broadband companies can’t use their control over Internet connections to dictate where consumers can go and what they can do online.

They are particularly concerned that without strong net neutrality protections, phone and cable companies could slow or block online phone calls, Web video and other Internet services that compete with their core businesses.

Internet companies and public interest groups also want regulations to prevent broadband providers from favoring their own online traffic or traffic from business partners that can pay to take priority over other online services.

But Genachowski has faced strong resistance from phone and cable giants, which insist they need flexibility to manage network traffic so that high-bandwidth applications _ such as online video _ don’t hog capacity and slow down their networks.

The communications companies also argue that after spending billions to upgrade their lines for broadband, they need to be able earn a healthy return by offering premium high-speed services. They warn that burdensome regulations would discourage them from continuing to invest in their systems.

Genachowski’s plan, which builds on a set of FCC principles established under the previous administration in 2005, would require that broadband providers let subscribers access all legal online content, applications and services over their wired networks. But it contains several key concessions to the phone and cable companies.

For one thing, it would give broadband providers flexibility to manage their systems to deal with problems such as network congestion and unwanted traffic including spam as long as they publicly disclose their network management practices.

The proposal would give wireless carriers even more leeway to manage data traffic, since wireless systems have more bandwidth constraints than wired networks. It would, however, prohibit wireless carriers from blocking access to any websites or competing applications such as Internet calling services on mobile devices, and would also require the carriers to disclose their network management practices.

In addition, the proposal would let broadband providers experiment with routing traffic from specialized services such as smart energy grids and home security systems over dedicated networks, as long as the practice doesn’t slow down the public Internet.

The proposal drew cautious praise from AT&T, which said, “The FCC appears to be embracing a compromise solution that is sensitive to the dynamics of investment in a difficult economy and appears to avoid over-regulation.”

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