Washington— The Baby Bells won a big victory at the Federal Communications Commission Friday, as the agency voted to deregulate their high-speed data services in an effort to create regulatory parity with market-leading cable companies.
FCC chairman Kevin Martin pushed for Baby Bell deregulation after the Supreme Court ruled in late June that the commission had the authority to shield cable-modem service from a range of regulatory obligations, including providing network access to competing Internet-service providers such as America Online Inc. and EarthLink Inc.
VOTE WAS 4-0
“The order today is a momentous one,” Martin said, adding that “leveling the playing field” between the Bells and cable was one of his key goals.
In a 4-0 vote, the FCC held that the Bells’ digital-subscriber-line service is, like cable-modem service, an information service. Previously, DSL had been classified as a telecommunications service, which is a heavily regulated category in federal communications statutes.
As a result, the Bells will not have to share their networks with ISPs. The FCC also said it plans to phase out the need for the Bells to contribute a portion of DSL revenue to universal service, the program that subsidizes phone service in rural areas where high costs can make dial-tone service unaffordable.
Susanne Guyer, senior vice president for federal regulatory affairs at Verizon Communications Inc., applauded the FCC’s action.
“This is an important step toward a national broadband policy that allows consumers to enjoy the full benefits of competition,” she said. “At last, regulations are catching up to where consumers and technology have been for some time.”
Consumers Union and the Consumer Federation of America blasted the FCC, saying the ruling would lead to higher broadband access prices and result in consumers losing access to Internet content blocked by network owners.
The ISP access rules go away in one year, giving the companies time to adjust to the new deregulatory environment. Universal service payments cease in 270 days, but the FCC reserved the right to extend the deadline while it finds substitute subsidy funding, which might include contributions from cable.
Martin, who became chairman in March, worked hard to gain the support of FCC Democrats Michael Copps and Jonathan Adelstein. While both Democrats said that reclassification of DSL was not their preferred course, they said such a step was inevitable in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 6-3 ruling in the Brand X case.
“The Supreme Court has fundamentally changed the legal landscape with its Brand X decision,” Copps said.
The FCC also released a notice of proposed rulemaking on possible consumer protection rules it could impose on cable and phone companies’ high-speed data services. The agency did not indicate how quickly it would decide issues raised in the proposed rulemaking.
NET NEUTRALITY SUPPORT
In another decision, the FCC released a policy statement stating, among other things, that consumers are “entitled to access the lawful Internet content of their choice.” While non-binding, the statement indicated FCC support of network neutrality, the idea that cable and phone companies can’t discriminate against content rivals.
The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, in a statement attributed to president Kyle McSlarrow, said: “We applaud chairman Martin for making broadband deployment a national priority, and support today’s FCC decision to promote deregulatory policies that treat like services alike. We invite the telephone companies to take a similar approach to regulation of video services.”