After stewing for 18 months, the cable industry is expected to learn Thursday how federal regulators intend to classify cable-modem service.
But that appears to be just the first step as the Federal Communications Commission is also expected to launch a new rulemaking that will keep key regulatory issues alive at the agency for several more months at a minimum.
At its March 14 meeting, the FCC is widely expected to classify cable-modem Internet access an information service, not a cable service.
The agency is also planning to issue a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) that is expected eventually to establish the specific regulations that would apply to cable-modem service as an information service.
It was unclear whether the FCC would decide Thursday or resolve in the NPRM months from now whether cable operators are required to carry unaffiliated Internet-service providers.
But FCC chairman Michael Powell has often stated he does not support forced carriage requirements.
The NPRM is expected to trigger a new round of debates between cable operators and local governments over the scope of local regulation of cable-modem service.
Local governments want to retain the right as cable regulators to require operators to seek franchises for information services and pay franchise fees on those services Traditionally, local governments may collect franchise fees on cable services.
In meetings with the FCC in the last few months, cable industry leaders have said that a new franchise would reduce the incentive to deploy cable-modem service and franchise fees on information service would be discriminatory because competing ISPs do not pay the same fees.
The FCC began to examine the classification of cable-modem service to settle conflicts arising from federal court decisions.
For years, the FCC dodged the issue, creating a vacuum that left cable operators, cities and ISPs in regulatory limbo. During that period, many cable operators and local governments operated on the premise that cable-modem service was a cable service.
In April 2000, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 11th Circuit held in a pole-attachment case that cable-modem service was neither a cable service nor a telecommunication service, but more likely an information service.
A month later, a U.S. District Court judge in Richmond, Va., ruling in a case about a local ordinance requiring cable carriage of unaffiliated ISPs, held cable-modem service to be a cable service.
Lastly, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit — in a case that struck down a forced-access law passed by Portland, Ore. — decided cable-modem service was not a cable service, but a hybrid information service and telecommunications service.