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 wireline networks.
Consumer groups have long advocated stricter anti-blocking and anti-discrimination rules for mobile web traffic. This year, they have powerful allies in Internet companies like Google and Facebook, who see mobile as an increasingly popular platform.
"The distinction between wireless and wireline is certainly not the same as it was... The enforceable net neutrality rules should apply equally, whether you use the Internet on your mobile or home broadband," said Michael Beckerman, head of the Internet Association, which represents three dozen web companies including Amazon.com and Netflix.
"There will be differences in terms of network management, but at the end of the day, the same fundamental principles ... need to apply to the mobile world."
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, non-white 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 hotspots for their customers.
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