The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Are Internet providers ripping off some of their biggest customers? This data may tell.

This undated photo made available by Google shows the campus-network room at a data center in Council Bluffs, Iowa. (AP Photo/Google, Connie Zhou)

Federal regulators are finally releasing a huge trove of pricing and network data they've spent months collecting on the massive $40 billion market for business broadband, part of an effort to determine whether Internet providers such as Verizon and AT&T are charging hospitals, universities and other enterprises fairly for data and communications services.

Most of us may be more familiar with the retail market for broadband, where Internet providers charge consumers a monthly fee for access to the Web.

Although it's more obscure, the business market for high-speed data is no less important: It's what helps ATMs connect to your bank account, and how smaller cellular carriers like Sprint route your phone calls across the country. Even your office building might be a customer in this industry.

Some firms argue that, just as in the residential broadband space, a lack of competition among Internet providers drives up prices. British Telecom, which reportedly serves some 75 percent of all Fortune 500 companies as a technology and networking provider, highlighted this issue in a recent Financial Times interview.

"Almost all access is being provided by two companies and they have divided the country among themselves," Bas Burger, the head of British Telecom's Americas division, told the Times. Burger also called for the Federal Communications Commission to step up its regulation of business broadband, or what's known in the telecom industry as the market for "special access."

AT&T, one of the biggest providers of special access, fired back last week with a blog post accusing BT of hypocrisy and trying to tilt the gigantic playing field in its favor.

"BT wants the US to adopt a regulatory regime like it has back home in the UK … all so BT can get lower prices for services that are already cheaper in the US than the same services [in] the UK," wrote Robert Quinn, an AT&T policy executive.

The data being released Thursday by the FCC will likely help economists and antitrust experts figure out just how much competition exists in the U.S. market for business broadband.

The goal of the analyses, according to an FCC official, will be to develop a new agency formula that would help determine appropriate rates. In areas with numerous special access providers, regulations may be relaxed. In cities where competition is said to be lacking, regulations may be adjusted or increased. The commission is expected to come up with a concrete proposal next year based on feedback from outside experts and its own staff.

Unfortunately, there's no way for the general public to review the data, which is highly sensitive. Only analysts who've been specially cleared by the FCC will be able to access the information — which includes network maps, pricing information, and confidential company documents — from a secure facility.

Critics of the FCC allege that the agency is looking for ways to impose new price regulations on the communications industry. But the market for special access has always been subject to regulation, said the FCC official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak publicly.

"What the commission is trying to do is figure out, 'Where is it appropriate to move away from [the old rules] and where is it appropriate to leave them in place?' "