In a 3 to 2 party-line vote, the FCC decided today that broadband internet access will be classified as a "telecommunications service under Title II," a utility like telephone service.
The ruling enshrines major aspects of net neutrality, the principle that favors an "open internet" and which limits what service providers can do to control access to it.
The new rules specifically prohibit blocking legal traffic, intentionally degrading the service quality given to particular sites, services or devices, and paid prioritization, whereby partners pay for access to "fast lanes." FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and Democratic commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel each favored the rules. Republicans Michael O'Reilly and Ajit Pai voted against them.
Though the internet has remained largely "neutral" since its inception, service providers have long wanted to discriminate between different users, devices and types of data, to charge data-gobbling websites for access to their customers, and to play favorites with affiliated services and sites.
The ruling will be challenged vigorously by the service providers, business groups, and Republicans in congress.
An earlier FCC compromise was torn up after cable companies challenged the agency's power to regulate the web. Though they won in court, this strategy led the FCC to rule more directly on the internet's role as a communications utility.
During a four-month consultation period, a little-liked FCC plan to regulate neutrality issues on a "a case-by-case basis" ultimately gave way to more comprehensive protections for the open 'net.
A satirical, scathing segment produced by HBO's John Oliver became a popular turning point, racking up more than 8 million views and highlighting the consequences of ignoring Net Neutrality's highly technical and "boring" subject matter.
As the debate became more public and fractious, AT&T said it had suspended infrastructure investment until the neutrality proposals were decided, while the White House signaled support, and billionaire Marc Cuban issued perfectly-timed orations valorizing Ayn Rand and America's most hated corporations.
Now service providers must face the outcome they sought to avoid–an open internet protected by telecommunications utility rules.