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FCC officials meet with AT&T, Verizon, Google over Internet regulation

Senior officials at the Federal Communications Commission met behind closed doors on Monday with representatives of broadband carriers and Internet firms to consider a possible legislative compromise on Internet regulation and avoid a controversial move by the agency to assert its authority over broadband networks.

FCC Chairman Julius Genachowski’s chief of staff and members of the agency's office of strategic planning sat down with broadband providers including AT&T and Verizon, as well as Internet giants Google and Skype, to hash out differences on several issues. One of the key topics during the two-hour discussion concerned possible net neutrality rules that would require network operators to treat all content equally.

Monday’s meeting comes just two months after a federal court decision cast doubt on the agency’s ability to enforce network neutrality. In that ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit found that the FCC lacked the authority to stop Comcast from slowing traffic to a popular file-sharing Web site. The decision could significantly hamper the agency’s ability to carry its plans to expand broadband access nationwide.

FCC chief of staff Eddie Lazarus said the agency held the meeting to "seize an opportunity." Companies have already begun discussing various aspects of possible net neutrality regulations, considering, for example, how carriers could manage traffic on their networks and whether wireless services should be subject to the regulations.

Meanwhile, on Capitol Hill, key lawmakers have been working on an update to the Communications Act to better reflect increased consumer use of broadband Internet services as a primary means of communication. The House and Senate Commerce Committees will soon begin closed-door meetings with industry representatives, public interest groups and other parties on how to update communications laws

Those legislative efforts, which are separate from the FCC’s push to more tightly regulate broadband services, could help the agency achieve its Internet policy goals without a controversial reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service. Such a move by the agency could subject network operators to much tighter regulation, though Genachowski has said he would pursue a middle ground and exempt broadband providers from dozens of rules that typically apply to phone services.

“Today we began a process to engage with a wide variety of stakeholders in an effort to support the process that Congressional leaders have started to examine updating the Communications Act,” Lazarus said.

When asked if the meetings, which will continue Tuesday, are intended to avoid reclassification of broadband, Lazarus said only that, “this is a way to see what policy consensus exists on most important issues we face.”

Network operators AT&T, Comcast, and Verizon Communications have all opposed Genachowski’s push for greater authority over broadband. They say such a move could lead to uncertainty, especially because the FCC could down the road choose to regulate prices and mandate sharing of network lines as it does telephone lines. Google and Skype are among the Internet firms that have supported the move, which they say is necessary to prevent discrimination of services like theirs on the Web.

Monday’s meeting was also attended by a representative from the Open Internet Coalition, which includes Internet service firms such as Google and Skype.

Some public interest groups criticized the meeting, saying it should have been conducted with greater transparency, particularly if the agency is considering a retreat from its recently announced plans to re-regulate broadband. And no public interest groups were directly invited, they said.

Lazarus said the agency will issue a public notice about the meeting and solicit direct participation from consumer and public interest groups.

By Cecilia Kang  |  June 21, 2010; 9:00 PM ET
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Here's hoping Verizon and Comcast and the rest don't eventually get permission to block Vonage..

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