Comcast, Phase II: FCC Opens Inquiry into Broadband Classification Options

The FCC today adopted and released its highly anticipated Notice of Inquiry (“NOI”) regarding the potential regulatory reclassification of facilities-based broadband Internet access services. This proceeding will explore the third way” toward regulation that Chairman Genachowski suggested in response to the recent decision issued by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the Comcast case. In Comcast, the D.C. Circuit rejected the FCC’s attempt to rely upon its ancillary authority” to enjoin a cable operator from degrading its customers’ lawful Internet services. This sparked a concern that similar decisions could cause the Commission to lose regulatory authority over time in connection with most, if not all, Internet access services. The heart of the problem is that the FCC made a series of decisions over the past decade that have classified wireline broadband Internet access services as information services” that are exempt from Title II common carrier regulation, and this classification was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court in its Brand X decision. If the Commission cannot exert ancillary authority” to regulate them, then the FCC could be left with virtually no control over services provided over a broadband platform.

The NOI seeks comment in three areas. First, the FCC seeks input on whether the current information service” classification remains adequate for the Commission to perform its mission. Second, it seeks comment on the legal and practical consequences of reclassifying Internet services used to communicate with others that have Internet connections” as telecommunications service” and then applying all of the regulatory requirements of Title II. Finally, and most importantly, the Commission seeks comment on the third way” position by which so-called Internet connectivity service” that is offered as part of a wired broadband Internet service would be reclassified as a telecommunications service”, but that the Commission would forbear from applying all Title II regulatory authority over it except such as necessary to implement a set of discrete rules applicable to universal service, consumer protection, competition and small business opportunity.

The Commission has fast-tracked the comment cycle in this case. Comments will be due by July 15, with replies due August 12.