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Net neutrality: Reclassifying broadband would be a long road

Grant Gross | May 29, 2014
Advocates of strong net neutrality rules are calling for the U.S. Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a regulated utility, but such a move would trigger a lengthy court fight between the agency and broadband providers, some telecom law experts say.

Asked if reclassification would trigger a backlash in Congress, Feld said it might, particularly if Republicans gain majority control of the Senate in elections later this year. But Congress would have a difficult time overturning the rules, he said.

"President Obama would still be able to veto any such resolution," Feld said. "While one does not like to rely on a presidential veto, it is equally foolish to assume that a future Congress will automatically overrule any FCC classification. The tide on this is clearly shifting."

A Republican Congress would likely attempt to overturn any net neutrality rules, Feld noted. Whether the FCC relies on reclassification or takes another route, it "makes no difference if the Senate flips, so you might as well do what you think is right," he said.

Net neutrality advocate Marvin Ammori of the Ammori Group law firm also discounted the broadband providers' chances of overturning reclassification.

"They'll argue the FCC didn't provide a reasoned basis for the policy tweak," he said. "They're very likely to lose that. Courts would defer to the FCC, and the FCC would win."

Wheeler has defended his proposal, which uses Section 706 of the Telecom Act, a section giving the agency responsibility for robust broadband deployment, as a quicker way to restore net neutrality rules after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit struck down an old version of the FCC's net neutrality rules in January.

The appeals court pointed to Section 706 as a way the agency could find authority for net neutrality rules, and Wheeler has argued that it makes sense to follow the court's lead after judges there twice struck down the agency's attempts to enforce net neutrality rules.

Alternatively, reclassification would "not be as straightforward or easy as many assume," said Berin Szoka, president of free-market think tank TechFreedom. Reclassifying broadband as a utility "would take, best guess, five to 10 years of back and forth between the FCC and courts," he added.

The agency, to reclassify, would have to find a justification for changing its mind on its decade-old classification of broadband as a lightly regulated information service, Szoka said.

Reclassification would be additionally complex because the agency would also have to draw a line between broadband and other Internet services, Szoka said. The FCC would "have to explain why it should only reclassify broadband and not some edge services, too," he added.

Like Nadler, Szoka questioned whether the FCC will reclassify broadband. The complexity and likely legal challenges are "all why I don't think the FCC is serious about Title II," he said. "I think they're going through the motions of including it ... so they can tell the angry mob outside their gates that they considered this option."

 

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