FCC spells out Net neutrality rules -- in 400 pages

The Federal Communications Commission releases the details of the rules it passed last month that regulate how Internet providers can treat data, videos and other content.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler defends his Net neutrality policy at Mobile World Congress 2015. Stephen Shankland/CNET

The Federal Communications Commission on Thursday finally spelled out how it will preserve the open Internet, publicly releasing a 400-page PDF that details its new, stricter regulations for broadband services.

The agency's commissioners voted 3-2 to approve the order last month but did not release the order itself. Instead, Chairman Tom Wheeler and the agency served up select details through a fact sheet, press conferences and an appearance earlier this month at the Mobile World Conference trade show in Barcelona.

Thursday marks the first chance for the public to get a full look at the order, which reclassifies broadband as a so-called Title II telecommunications service under the 1934 Communications Act. That reclassification allows the FCC to regulate providers using rules originally established for the old telephone network. This legal definition establishes broadband as a "common carrier," a centuries-old concept that means carriers' networks must be open to everyone. It also gives the FCC unprecedented authority over the industry.

Despite its length, the order is a must read for anyone interested in the issue, known among regulators and the industry as Net neutrality.

"Until everybody reads the fine print and understands it, you won't really be able comment in detail," Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T's business and mobility division, said in an interview last week. "I plan to read [the regulations] cover to cover."

While consumer advocates and online businesses such as video-streaming service Netflix cheered the FCC's stricter regulations, broadband providers such as Verizon and Comcast will likely sue the FCC to block the order. Their concern is that the Title II reclassification gives the FCC authority to set rates and impose tariffs that could translate into higher fees to consumers, stifle innovation and discourage companies from building new broadband networks and improving existing ones. Wheeler dismissed these concerns.

"This is Title II tailored for the 21st Century," the order states. "Unlike the application of Title II to incumbent wireline companies in the 20th Century, a swath of utility-style provisions (including tariffing) will not be applied."

The FCC's Michael O'Rielly, one of two Republican commissioners who voted against the order, wrote a dissenting statement that expressed concern about the far-reaching implications of the new rules.

"I am far more troubled by the dangerous course the commission is now charting on Title II and the consequences it will have for broadband investment, edge providers and consumers," O'Rielly said.

The FCC's order is culmination of a roughly yearlong debate, complete with increasingly heated rhetoric. The Net neutrality issue went mainstream in June after comedian John Oliver delivered a 13-minute rant that went viral, resulting in a flood of comments to the FCC that temporarily crippled its public-comment system.

AT&T had hinted it would file a lawsuit once the new rules become public. The company's chief lobbyist, Jim Cicconi, didn't indicate Thursday when or even if AT&T would sue -- only that the battle is far from over.

"Unfortunately, the order released today begins a period of uncertainty that will damage broadband investment in the United States," Cicconi said. "Ultimately, though, we are confident the issue will be resolved by bipartisan action by Congress or a future FCC, or by the courts."

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What the FCC Net neutrality rules will mean for Internet users
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While the full document runs to 400 pages, the actual text of the new rules is only 305 words long. The rules prohibit broadband providers from blocking or slowing traffic on both wired and wireless networks. They also ban Internet service providers from offering paid priority services that could allow them to charge content companies, such as Netflix, fees to access Internet "fast lanes" to reach customers more quickly when networks are congested.

Wheeler said reclassifying broadband as a utility gives the FCC its best shot at withstanding legal challenges. The courts have twice tossed out earlier rules aimed at protecting Internet openness. The FCC chairman has said repeatedly the agency does not intend to set rates or add new taxes to broadband bills. More than 100 pages of the 400-page document released Thursday explain that forbearance.

The two Republican commissioners on the FCC, Ajit Pai and O'Rielly, disagree.

"The Commission attempts to downplay the significance of Title II," O'Rielly said in a statement. "But make no mistake: this is not some make believe modernized Title II light that is somehow tailored to preserve investment while protecting consumers from blocking or throttling. It is fauxbearance."

This story is part of a CNET special report looking at the challenges of Net neutrality, and what rules -- if any -- are needed to fuel innovation and protect US consumers.

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