Is Internet Access a Public Utility, Like Water or Gas?

Network cables hang in front of a computer screen Oliver Berg / picture-alliance / dpa

Should the Internet be considered a utility like phone service, electricity, gas or water?

That's become a central question in the long-running debate over "net neutrality" -- whether Internet providers should have to treat all online traffic equally -- and the argument is heating up this week.

On Thursday, the Federal Communications Commission is expected to vote on a proposal that will seek public comment on whether Internet service should be treated as a public utility -- in which all consumers have the same access to the same service.

It's one of two main options that the commission is considering in its bid to rewrite the rules around U.S. broadband Internet.


Who supports treating Internet service like a utility?

Supporters of net neutrality say allowing Internet "fast lanes" will unfairly raise prices on content services, which will need to pay providers if they want to avoid slow speeds for customers.

That cost could be passed on to consumers -- and, consumer advocates argue, even though big players like Netflix may pay for fast-lane delivery, smaller companies without the cash to pay up will be left behind.

Those net neutrality supporters, a group that includes Silicon Valley tech companies and content providers, want the FCC to treat broadband like a utility. That would be a big shift from the current situation.

Since 2002 the FCC has considered broadband Internet as an "information service" rather than telecommunications. It may sound like semantics, but there's a big difference -- the FCC is limited in its ability to regulate the first category, which doesn't mandate equal service for all.

In the Thursday proposal, the FCC is expected to say it's considering reclassifying Internet service similar to utilities under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. Broadband providers would become "common carriers" like phone services -- which must provide equal access and are subject to more regulation from the FCC.

"Reclassification doesn’t really mean ISPs become utilities," said Timothy Karr, spokesman for the advocacy group and net neutrality supporter Free Press. "It just means they have to operate by a set of rules that prohibit them from blocking or slowing certain content. That’s our goal."


Why are broadband companies so upset about potentially being called a utility?

Broadband companies are strongly against the Title II proposal, and they've been busy lobbying lawmakers and the FCC.

On Tuesday a cadre of CEOs from Internet providers including AT&T, Time Warner Cable, Verizon, and Comcast -- which owns NBCUniversal -- sent a letter to the FCC. They argued reclassification would hurt future development in broadband, and that Title II "does not discourage" or "outlaw" Internet fast lanes.

The CEOs also called it "questionable" whether the FCC could even pull off such a reclassification, which they said would result in "unprecedented government micromanagement of all aspects of the Internet economy."

The broadband companies do want to work with the FCC to create "a lawful regulatory framework for protecting the open Internet," the CEOs' letter said, but they don't want that framework to be Title II.

An industry group called the National Cable and Telecommunications Association sent its own anti-reclassification letter to the FCC on Wednesday.

NCTA spokesman Brian Dietz told NBC News the group's view is that, "Title II regulation doesn't provide any incentive for further investment; it's incentive to do nothing to innovate, and keep things the same. That's not good for consumers."

Is reclassifying Internet service the only option on the table?

Reclassifying broadband would give the FCC a stronger hand than the other option the commission is considering.

The FCC is also slated to propose regulating broadband providers' actions on a case-by-case basis, under another part of the Telecommunications Act: Section 706.

That's the method the broadband companies prefer. But critics say the 706 option is weak, and that the FCC wouldn't be able to stop fast lanes using it. Meanwhile, others have questioned whether the FCC is truly considering Title II.

But Gigi Sohn, senior counsel for external affairs for FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, said in a Twitter Q&A Tuesday that the commission's proposal will include both potential methods.