WASHINGTON - A federal court threw the future of Internet regulations into doubt Tuesday with a far-reaching decision that went against the Federal Communications Commission and could even hamper the government's plans to expand broadband access in the United States.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia ruled that the FCC lacks authority to require broadband providers to give equal treatment to all Internet traffic flowing over their networks. That was a big victory for Comcast Corp., the nation's largest cable company, which had challenged the FCC's authority to impose such "network neutrality" obligations on broadband providers.
Supporters of network neutrality, including FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski, have argued that the policy is necessary to prevent broadband providers from favoring or discriminating against certain Web sites and online services, such as Internet phone programs or software that runs in a Web browser.
In a statement, the FCC said it remains "firmly committed to promoting an open Internet and to policies that will bring the enormous benefits of broadband to all Americans" and "will rest these policies . . . on a solid legal foundation."
Advocates contend there is precedent: Nondiscrimination rules have traditionally applied to so-called "common carrier" networks that serve the public, from roads and highways to electrical grids and telephone lines. But broadband providers such as Comcast, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. argue that after spending billions of dollars on their networks, they should be able to sell premium services and manage their systems to prevent certain applications from hogging capacity.
Officials at Cablevision, which owns Newsday, declined to comment Tuesday on the ruling.
Yesterday's unanimous ruling by the three-judge panel was a setback for the FCC because it questioned the agency's authority to regulate broadband. That could cause problems beyond the FCC's effort to adopt official net neutrality regulations.
The FCC needs the authority to regulate broadband so that it can push ahead with some of the plan's key recommendations. Among other things, the FCC proposes to expand broadband by tapping the federal fund that subsidizes telephone service in poor communities.