The Federal Communications Commission said Thursday it will study the business practices of high-speed Internet providers and consider adopting regulations to ensure all Web traffic is treated equally.
The study will focus on how Internet service providers are managing traffic on their networks and whether they are charging different prices for different speeds or levels of service, the commission said.
The FCC adopted four principles on Internet policy in 2005, and the study will consider whether a principle of nondiscrimination in Internet traffic should be added.
Consumer advocates and other supporters of so-called net neutrality have pushed for the FCC to adopt such rules.
Commissioner Michael Copps, a Democrat, supported the launch of the study but characterized it as a "tiny, timid step."
Instead, he said, "I want an FCC that unconditionally states its preference for nondiscrimination on the Internet."
Commissioner Robert McDowell, meanwhile, said that a study of the issue was proper before the commission adopts additional principles.
"We must resist the temptation to impose regulations which are based on theory," he said.
The net neutrality issue pits consumer groups and some Internet content providers, such as Google Inc., against telecom carriers like AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.
Andrew Jay Schwartzmann, president of the Media Access Project, a consumer advocacy group, said the study is a way for the FCC to avoid tackling the issue.
"Kicking the can down the road with just another study is a low-tech but effective means of delaying action on a critical high-tech question," he said.
Suzanne Guyer, an executive with Verizon said in a written statement, "We believe this inquiry will show a healthy broadband marketplace in which consumers have access to a growing number of choices."
"Net neutrality — better named net regulation — is trying to solve a problem that doesn't exist," she said.