New rules proposed by the nation's chief communications regulator to ensure unfettered access to the Internet would level the online playing field as more people surf the Web on mobile devices, but the plan has wireless carriers in an uproar.
Monday's proposal by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski would ensure that consumers would be able to get whatever content they want on the Internet and to use any service they want.
But the telecommunications and the cable companies that control both land-line and wireless access to the Internet argue that some customers who download large amounts of data, such as a continuous flow of movies, can jam their networks. Regulations that prevent the companies from restricting such bandwidth hogs, they contend, would hamper their networks, harm innovation and delay upgrades.
The debate centers on so-called network neutrality principles that the FCC has been using for four years to prevent telecom companies, such as AT&T; Inc. and Time Warner Cable Inc., from restricting access to websites and other online services.
Genachowski's proposal would turn those principles into permanent rules and expand them to prevent discrimination against the type of data flowing through the networks, such as free Internet phone services or file-sharing technology for movies.
And for the first time, the regulations would apply to wireless carriers. Genachowski said there was no reason to continue to exempt wireless services from rules designed to preserve the Internet's traditional open access.
"Even though each form of Internet access has unique technical characteristics, they are all different roads to the same place," he said. "It is essential that the Internet itself remain open, however users reach it."
Network neutrality has become a major cause in recent years for public interest groups, Internet activists, Democratic lawmakers and online companies such as Google Inc. They worry that telecom companies will squeeze out competitors offering video and other services or charge websites fees to have their pages delivered faster to users.
Last year, the FCC ordered Comcast Corp. to stop blocking some customers from using the BitTorrent file-sharing technology. The FCC found that Comcast was trying to cripple video sites that competed with its on-demand service and failed to tell customers it was blocking their access. Comcast said those customers were using far too much bandwidth in sharing movies and other video, dramatically slowing the network. It is challenging the FCC's findings in court.
Supporters, including President Obama, have long called for a nondiscrimination rule that would force all Internet content to be treated equally, ensuring that consumers don't face limits on what they can access -- and don't pay higher prices to download it quickly.
Monday's proposal didn't sit well with wireless providers, which are becoming increasingly important players as smart devices such as the iPhone allow mobile access to video and other Internet content. They have been lightly regulated, and proudly point to that fact as a key reason for more competition in the fast-growing wireless arena.
The leading wireless trade organization warned that network neutrality rules might force mobile devices such as the iPhone and Amazon's Kindle electronic book reader to allow any developer to offer their own applications on them.
AT&T;, the nation's largest land-line and wireless carrier, complained that changing government rules a year after wireless companies spent billions of dollars in an FCC auction to lease what they thought were unencumbered public airwaves "creates the impression of a 'bait and switch.' "
"We are concerned . . . that the FCC appears ready to extend the entire array of net neutrality requirements to what is perhaps the most competitive consumer market in America: wireless services," said Jim Cicconi, an AT&T; senior executive vice president.
Cicconi and others suggested that consumers could see prices for service rise and choices of new phones and other devices limited as companies hesitate to invest in a more regulated market.
Charles Golvin, principal analyst with Forrester Research, described Genachowski's proposal as "a very scary proposition" for wireless companies. Wireless companies typically have exercised great control over their networks, restricting access to generate revenue by charging for certain services available free on the Internet, such as the Skype Internet phone service.
The companies fear becoming just a "dumb pipe" for people to access the Internet, with no way to make money on additional services, Golvin said.
Wireless networks also are constrained by a limited number of airwaves and might have a greater need than conventional phone and cable companies to restrict access to some applications and users, such as those consuming huge amounts of bandwidth, he said.
Genachowski tried to allay some of those concerns. He said the rules would be enforced case by case. When networks are congested, for example, telecommunications companies might be allowed to limit use by "very heavy users" so other customers would still have access to the Internet.
Restrictions also might be applied differently to wireless than to cable or fiber-optic lines. He promised that the FCC would fully analyze the implications for wireless networks as it drafts detailed rules.
"This is not about government regulation of the Internet," Genachowski said. "It's about fair rules of the road for companies that control access to the Internet.
"The rise of serious challenges to the free and open Internet puts us at a crossroads. We could see the Internet's doors shut to entrepreneurs, the spirit of innovation stifled, a full and free flow of information compromised."
Obama was a strong supporter of network neutrality during the presidential campaign, helping to draw online support.
He praised the announcement Monday by Genachowski, a former Internet executive he appointed this year to head the FCC, as an important step "to preserve an open Internet in which all Americans can participate and benefit."
The FCC's four guiding Internet principles since 2005 assure that Internet users can access any legal content, application or service and allow them to attach any device to the Internet as long as it doesn't harm the network.
In addition to strengthening those principles, Genachowski's proposal would mandate that operators clearly state their policies.
Telecom trade groups said they were willing to work with the FCC on updating rules but cautioned about the risks of over-regulation.
Genachowski's proposals would have to be approved by the FCC. The five-member commission's other two Democrats, Michael J. Copps and Mignon Clyburn, said Monday they supported the plan, guaranteeing enough votes to pass it.
But the FCC's two Republican commissioners, Robert M. McDowell and Meredith A. Baker, said they were worried about the proposed new rules. In a joint statement, they called it "a dramatic proposal to grow government's involvement in Internet governance and management."
And some Senate Republicans backed an amendment to prohibit the FCC from enacting new rules.
"The Internet has flourished in large part because of a lack of government interference," Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.) said. "I see no need to change that now."