Telcos and web services providers in the United States could end up under closer regulatory scrutiny after an appeals court defined high-speed broadband as a utility.
A panel comprising three judges issued the decision [pdf] in a closely-watched case between the Federal Communications Commission and an alliance of telcos and ISPs over so-called net neutrality rules laid down in 2015.
The rules banned providers from blocking or otherwise hampering the delivery of internet-based content to customers on their networks, enforcing common carriage laws that have applied to telcos' voice calls for decades.
A legal battle ensued after the FCC attempted to enforce net neutrality. Telcos and ISPs appealed to overturn the anti-blocking rules for content, saying it would harm their businesses and favour over-the-top providers such as Netflix which does not have to build out infrastructure to their customers.
In a decision today, however, the Court of Appeals panel of judges backed the FCC and the US government's position that broadband is a telecommunications service that must be accessible equally to all citizens and not an optional luxury left to market forces.
The Centre for Democracy and Technology, a US digital rights lobby group, welcomed the decision as a win for net neutrality.
“Today’s decision is a victory for consumers, free expression, and the core principles on which the internet was created," Lisa Hayes, CDT vice president for programs and strategy, said in a statement.
"The court made the right decision in affirming the FCC’s decision on reclassification of internet broadband services, providing the best path forward for advancement of consumer choice, access, and privacy rights."
Providers are not giving up the battle yet, however. US telco and broadband provider giant AT&T said it always expected the case to reach the US Supreme Court and intends to continue the fight.
The country's trade association for cable network providers, NCTA, which serves around 59 million customers in the US, said it would review the pro-FCC court decision before taking further steps.