FCC turns to mobile Internet neutrality

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WASHINGTON -- A surge in mobile Internet usage has U.S. regulators considering whether to apply the same rules to fixed and wireless Internet traffic, and large technology firms are siding with consumer advocates to call for such a change.

The Federal Communications Commission is now rewriting the so-called "net neutrality" rules, aimed at ensuring that Internet providers do not unfairly block or slow down users' access to content on the Web, after their 2010 version was rejected in January by an appeals court.

As part of that process, the agency is seeking comments on whether it should take a fresh look at distinctions now drawn between wireless and wire-line networks.

The new look at the rules comes as Americans routinely use smartphones to watch videos and browse websites. A growing number of U.S. consumers -- many of them low income, nonwhite and young -- rely on such devices as their primary means of Internet access.

The lines between fixed and broadband continue to blur as mobile carriers develop fixed broadband businesses of their own and use Wi-Fi to offload wireless data traffic, and cable broadband providers create Wi-Fi hot pots for their customers.

Under the 2010 rules, both fixed and wireless Internet providers were banned from blocking users' access to legal websites, with exclusions for reasonable network management.

But wire-line carriers also couldn't block legal applications or "unreasonably discriminate" against any legal Web traffic or apps, while wireless providers were only banned from blocking applications that competed with their own voice or video calling services.

Wireless carriers say it would be unwise to impede their customers' freedom to roam the Web, and that stricter rules would hurt how they manage their dynamic shared networks, leading to slower Internet speeds for everyone.

Both sides plan to lobby the FCC as the agency collects public comments on its proposed rules until Sept. 10. Scrutiny on the wireless space promises to be more intense than before.

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