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Sprint backs FCC on reclassifying broadband as utility

In a surprise move, Sprint counters its industry brethren by saying the FCC's plan won't prevent it from further investing in its broadband network.

Sprint doesn't think that the Federal Communications Commission's plan to reclassify broadband traffic as a utility is such a bad idea after all.

Sprint

In a letter to the FCC filed on Friday, Sprint's chief technology officer went against the rest of the wireless and broadband industry by saying the company could live with stricter Net neutrality regulation if applied with a "light touch," Sprint's Stephen Bye wrote.

"So long as the FCC continues to allow wireless carriers to manage our networks and differentiate our products, Sprint will continue to invest in data networks regardless of whether they are regulated by Title II, Section 706, or some other light touch regulatory regime," he said.

Bye added that -- unlike other wireless and broadband carriers -- Sprint doesn't think the FCC's moves to protect and strengthen Net neutrality will chill network investment.

Net neutrality is the idea that Internet providers give equal access to content and applications, and not force content providers to pay for faster delivery.

Sprint's statement comes just weeks before FCC chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to circulate his final proposal to reinstate open Internet rules that were struck down by a federal court a year ago. In the new order, which will be voted on by the full FCC on February 26, the FCC is expected to reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act. This change in classification has been opposed by all the big broadband and wireless service providers.

Wheeler argues that classifying broadband as a utility will give the FCC stronger footing to withstand potential legal challenges from the industry, while broadband providers say it will stifle innovation and bring investment in their networks to a grinding halt.

Earlier this week, a Verizon spokesman reiterated his company's position on the subject:

"Verizon believes that to apply 1930s-era utility regulation to the Internet under Title II reclassification would be a radical reversal for what has been an open, competitive and innovative Internet economy, and would be particularly harmful to wireless broadband, which unlike traditional voice services, developed free of legacy Title II regulations."

Chairman Wheeler's initial Net neutrality plan proposed in May did not include the drastic step of reclassifying broadband services as a utility. In an exclusive interview with CNET this week, he explained he began to rethink his approach earlier this summer after talking to consumers and entrepreneurs. The chairman has also been adamant that the new, stricter regulations for wireline broadband will also apply to wireless, which the previous Net neutrality laws did not. Wheeler also said the approach he is proposing will exclude things such a rate regulation.

He said the approach is similar to one that the FCC has used to regulate wireless voice networks. And he said that this style of regulation has worked well for the wireless industry.

"It clearly has not thwarted investment in the wireless industry," he said. "I mean, golly, there has been $300 billion -- that's with a 'b' -- invested in the wireless industry."

He also pointed to the ongoing wireless spectrum auction, which to date has bids totaling nearly $45 billion, the biggest auction in the agency's history.

While Sprint's statement Friday makes clear that the carrier would be fine with the inevitable Title II approach that the FCC is taking with the new rules, the company hints that it still hopes the FCC will treat wireless differently from wired broadband networks. In the 2010 rules, wireless networks were exempt from some of the no-blocking rules that applied to wireline networks.

But Wheeler has stated emphatically that wireless should be treated no differently than traditional wired broadband.

"Wireless can't carry 55 percent of the Internet's traffic and expect to be exempt from Open Internet requirements," he said.

Verizon aside, the rest of the wireless industry opposes the Title II reclassification of broadband. Meredith Atwell Baker, head of the wireless industry's main lobbying group CTIA, has called the chairman's comparisons to wireless regulation "misplaced and irrelevant."

"The chairman is correct that deregulation worked," she said in a statement. "The chairman cannot now use that same deregulatory tool to extend regulation and government intrusion where it has never been before."

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.