July 29, 2008 3:00 am

FCC signals its authority over web access

Cable companies and other internet service providers will be forced to prove that any moves that slow or limit their customers' internet traffic are "narrowly targeted", or risk facing enforcement action, according to Kevin Martin, the Republican chairman of the Federal Communications Commission.

The US telecommunications regulator is expected to announce on Friday that it has voted to uphold a consumer complaint against Comcast that charges the cable company with wrongly restricting internet users who share movies and other content.

Mr Martin, who is expected to break party lines and pass the measure by a 3-2 vote with the support of his Democratic colleagues, said the move would send a signal that the FCC would examine any claims by internet service providers who block or interrupt service "with heightened scrutiny".

While companies were right to expect some ability to manage their networks, Mr Martin said Comcast had, in the instance that was the subject of complaint, not targeted its alleged blockage of content.

"Obviously people who own these networks need to manage networks. But the ISP bears the burden of scrutiny to limit where the consumer is going. There are some things you might be able to do," Mr Martin said.

He flatly rejected suggestions that are expected to be put forward by Comcast that the FCC does not have the authority to rule on the matter, saying the regulator had the right to protect customers through formal rulemaking procedures or enforcement actions.

"It is important for the commission to send a signal that we do have the authority and that we will take action if they are blocking or interfering with their own customers access to the internet," he said.

The FCC chairman also said accusations that he has shown a bias against the cable industry during his tenure were "unfair", but he added: "Of all the industries we regulate, consumers are getting the benefits of competition. The one exception is the cable industry."

Comcast said: "It is always hard to respond to rumours. However, we continue to assert that our network management practices were reasonable, wholly consistent with industry practices and that we did not block access to websites or online applications, including peer-to-peer services. We do not believe the record supports any other conclusion."

The company agreed in March to move to a "protocol agnostic" network management technique, whereby it would now slow traffic for customers using bandwidth-hungry peer-to-peer applications. It began tests of alternative techniques in four US markets in June, and has announced plans for a fifth trial.

P2P useaccounts for between half and two-thirds of the upstream traffic on its network.

The detail of the ruling is expected to determine whether Comcast launches an appeal, and how broadly it will affect other cable operators and telecoms groups that provide internet access.

The company will also no doubt have to take politics into consideration. If it won an appeal next year, it could be inviting a potentially tougher regulatory response from a Democratic controlled Congress and - potentially - a Democratic president and FCC chairman.

Additional reporting by Andrew Edgecliffe-Johnson in New York

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