FCC Considers Internet Data Rules

The Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether the Internet needs rules to stop large telecom companies from discriminating against their rivals. Telecom companies vigorously oppose what's called "net neutrality," saying unfettered access will clog their "pipes." Supporters say the telecoms have a track record of slowing and even blocking access to sites offering large files, such as video.

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Rules made in Washington could influence who has more power over the Internet. Advocacy groups say the government needs to set rules so that telecommunications companies don't discriminate against their rivals. The industry opposes that idea. The Federal Communications Commission takes up the issue today, as NPR's Larry Abramson reports.

LARRY ABRAMSON: The sky is falling; at least that's the sense you get from listening to both sides of this debate. On the eve of the FCC vote, Verizon CEO Ivan Seidenberg told the telecom gathering this:

Mr. IVAN SEIDENBERG (CEO, Verizon): If this burdensome regime of net regulation is imposed on all parts of the Internet industry, it will inject an extraordinary amount of bureaucratic oversight into the economy's main growth engine for the future.

ABRAMSON: Verizon is worried because FCC Chair Julius Genachowski has already tipped his hand and said telecom companies need rules to follow to keep them from blocking competing services. But Markham Erickson, of the Open Internet Coalition, says regulation is needed because right now the deck is stacked in favor of a few Internet service providers.

Mr. MARKHAM ERICKSON (Open Internet Coalition): There are so few entities that do that, they have virtual monopolies and duopolies in their service areas, and we know that they have, you know, certainly the inclination and the incentive to discriminate against people's content and the applications.

ABRAMSON: Applications like low-cost Internet-based cell phone services, which could be blocked by wireless providers or cable companies that offer similar services themselves. That's why advocates of a neutral network of net neutrality want stricter oversight by the FCC. They've been joined by a series of civil rights groups concerned about the impact of telecom policies on low-income consumers.

But, Verizon chief Seidenberg told his industry, consumers will be the losers if government regulations descend.

Mr. SEIDENBERG: If we can't earn a return on the investments we make in broadband capacity, our progress toward a connected world will be delayed, if not halted all together.

ABRAMSON: Is that a prediction or a threat? Telecom companies frequently point to regulations as bars to investment and innovation. But Markham Erickson, of the Open Internet Coalition, says telecom companies frequently contend with strict conditions when they merge, yet they continue to thrive.

Mr. ERICKSON: So, this notion that somehow a rule that would preclude discrimination against content or applications would disincentivize the network operator from investing in their infrastructure, is false.

ABRAMSON: Despite forecasts of falling skies, any final regulations are many months away as the FCC puts this idea out for public comment.

Larry Abramson, NPR News, Washington.

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