The regulation of broadband carriers has become an important public policy issue. “Net neutrality” is based on the principle that all providers of content on the Internet shall be treated the same, i.e., there would not be “fast lanes” and “slow lanes.”

Regulating broadband carriers as common carriers would be the best way to achieve net neutrality. As common carriers, broadband carriers would be required to provide Internet access in an open and nondiscriminatory manner consistent with net neutrality.

The “net neutrality” proposal that the Federal Communications Commission is scheduled to consider Feb. 26 would adopt common carrier regulations for broadband.

The Internet is now the platform where most telecommunications occur. Broadband carriers provide the Internet’s interconnected infrastructure, which delivers the Internet to consumers and businesses. Carriers include:

Incumbent local exchange telecommunications carriers, like FairPoint, which have to make phone access available to everyone in their coverage areas, no matter how remote or expensive it is.

 Competitive local exchange carriers, like Time Warner, which only have to make service available where it’s profitable, including community antenna television (cable) carriers; wireless (also known as cellphone or mobile) carriers, and satellite carriers.

U.S. telecommunications policy is based on open entry into all areas of telecommunications, ending the quarantines and excessive regulation of the past. Hence, comprehensive public utility regulation of broadband carriers is not needed.

Instead, policymakers who want to pursue net neutrality can focus on mandating open and nondiscriminatory treatment of content providers and providing incentives for investment in broadband infrastructure, while refraining from unnecessary and costly public utility regulation.

Common carriers treat all comers, including competitors, the same. Common carriage policies have been used for centuries in regulating providers of delivery services, such as passenger ferries and ILECs. Regulating telecommunications carriers as common carriers can prevent undue discrimination and promote interconnection and competition.

Broadband delivery is an infrastructure service, and common carriage can ensure that that service is provided in an open and nondiscriminatory manner.

Wireless telephones – especially “smart” devices – have become an important means by which consumers access a range of telecommunications services. For that reason, the FCC’s proposed net neutrality rules include wireless networks.

The underlying policy principle is that the same net neutrality rules shall apply, regardless of how and where U.S. consumers and businesses access the Internet. This would help keep wireless carriers from partnering with Internet services (e.g., Facebook or Google) to provide a limited menu of Internet services on wireless devices. The Internet provides access to a wealth of information resources – and that can be true whether you access that information from a laptop in your home or office, or on a wireless device wherever you happen to be.

Sprint has decided to split with its wireless rivals and endorse the FCC plan to reclassify broadband as a common carrier service. Essentially, Sprint appears to have concluded it can live with common carrier status if it provides net neutrality without heavy-handed regulation.

The U.S. telecommunications industry is open to competition. So Sprint’s expectation that the FCC will not impose burdensome regulations as it implements net neutrality may prove to be well founded. If not, Sprint may be able to “free ride” off the litigation that its wireless and cable rivals are likely to pursue on net neutrality issues.

The cable TV services provided by cable operators are not subject to common carriage regulation – but, with net neutrality, their broadband service would be.

In the long term, cable operators may face declining revenues if an open Internet leads more cable subscribers to “cut the cord.” An open Internet could allow consumers to pick and choose their subscriptions (e.g., HBO GO) instead of subscribing to traditional cable TV service.

An open Internet has become an important public policy goal. Fast, free and open access to the Internet is critical to meeting the needs of American consumers and businesses, encouraging innovation and promoting economic development. The FCC has a chance to encourage progress toward this goal by reclassifying broadband carriers as common carriers that are – to a very limited degree – regulated as public utilities.