Reporting from Washington — The Federal Communications Commission voted Thursday to start the controversial process of reclassifying high-speed Internet access to give the agency more authority over service providers to prevent disparate treatment of customers.
The commission voted 3-2 along party lines to put out for public comment a new regulatory framework, dubbed the Third Way, that would make Internet service providers subject to some of the same nondiscrimination rules that apply to telephone companies.
FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski has been a vocal supporter of requiring Internet providers to treat all similar Web traffic equally, an issue known as net neutrality.
For more than a decade, the agency has taken a hands-off approach to broadband service in an effort to spur greater Internet use nationwide. It did that by refraining from invoking heavily regulated telecommunications provisions that otherwise would apply to the providers.
Meantime, though, technological gains have helped users download more easily movies and other video, which soak up bandwidth. Telecom providers have complained that a small percentage of customers were clogging their networks by downloading huge amounts of data, and they have wanted to charge them more money.
The reclassification, supported by fellow Democrats Michael J. Copps and Mignon Clyburn, was prompted by a federal appeals court decision in April that struck down the agency's effort to invoke net neutrality rules on service providers.
The FCC ruled in 2008 that Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable and Internet service provider, had improperly discriminated against Internet content by blocking some customers from using a file-sharing program. The court, however, ruled in the spring that the FCC lacked authority from Congress to make such a ruling.
Republican Commissioners Meredith Attwell Baker and Robert M. McDowell voted against the proposal.
McDowell said the proposed change would "place the heavy thumb of government on the scale of a free market" and stunt innovation and investment. Those concerns were echoed by Internet-service provider trade groups and other Republicans.
Congressional Republicans have voiced sharp criticism of the concept. House Republicans sent a letter Wednesday to Genachowski that urged him to reconsider reclassification.
Additionally, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R- Texas) blasted the FCC's decision, saying the agency has created "new burdensome regulations that threaten to stifle the growth of America's broadband services."
The debate over net neutrality has pitted Comcast, AT&T Inc. and other broadband service providers against Google Inc., Amazon.com Inc. and other Internet companies that extol the value of free-flowing Web traffic and an open Internet.
Tom Tauke, a spokesman for Verizon Communications Inc., said the FCC's move was "a terrible idea."
"Rather than attempting to make the new world of broadband fit into the regulatory scheme of the old telephone world, the FCC should acknowledge that this is an issue Congress should address," he said.
AT&T agreed that "congressional action is far preferable and far less risky to jobs and investment, than the FCC's current path."
But Google cheered the FCC's decision. "As we have said before, broadband infrastructure is too important to be left outside of any oversight," the company said on its blog site.
Rep. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) applauded the FCC's move, calling it a "light-touch regulatory proposal" that would ensure "continued innovation, consumer protection and certainty in the broadband marketplace."