ISPs declare war over tougher broadband rules

US telecoms watchdog the Federal Communications Commission has sparked a furious row over broadband by attempting to grab greater regulatory powers.

The battle comes after a court ruling in favour of ISP ComCast threw into question the FCC's policy on 'Net neutrality', which demands that all data be treated equally. The decision raised doubts over the watchdog's right to demand that the ISP cease throttling users's connections.

The FCC has responded by asking the US public to comment on three different plans for a future regulatory framework – prompting an expensive lobbying campaign by rival sides in the argument.

The FCC's five commissioners, three Democrat and two Republican, split on party lines over plans to open the proposals up to public consultation.

Two of the options presented involve either leaving the existing regulatory framework in place, or imposing a regime of strict controls.

The so-called "third way", backed by FCC chairman Julius Genachowski, involves the FCC taking a much more active role in regulating broadband service delivery – which currently has almost no oversight - but not involving itself either in pricing or the policing of content.

Despite this seeming compromise, major ISPs including Comcast, AT&T and Verizon have come out against the "third way", and are lobbying to stick with the status quo.

Verizon labelled the FCC's move "a terrible idea".

E-commerce giants, including Google and Amazon, have come out strongly in support of the FCC's proposal.

"Broadband infrastructure is too important to be left outside of any oversight," Richard Whitt, Google's telecom and media counsel wrote in a blog post.

Commentators expect a bitter fight over any extension of the FCC's powers.

Art Brodsky, communications director of Washington based public advocacy group Public Knowledge told BBC News: "It's a tough road ahead and the telcos are going to fight this to the death.

"AT&T in the first quarter of this year spent $6m on lobbying. That is one company. One quarter. Compare that to Google which spent $4m in the whole of last year."

Critics claim that restrictions on the way broadband providers manage their own network traffic could lead to the loss of as many as 500,000 jobs by 2015.