FCC Chairman Announces His Plan to Ensure an Open Internet

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has been working to create new rules to help guarantee net neutrality. Over the last year, a debate has unfolded involving the cable television and telecommunications industries, amongst others, while critics and Internet service providers have pointed to concerns regarding a potential shift toward stronger regulation. Wheeler’s plan, which was revealed yesterday and calls for Internet service to be regulated as a public utility, went even further than some analysts expected.

streamingUnder Title II of the Telecommunications Act, Wheeler proposes to reclassify high-speed Internet service as a telecommunications service rather than an information service. He revealed his proposal in an op-ed published in Wired yesterday.

The plan would arm the FCC with the legal authority to make sure that content would not be blocked online and the practice of fast lanes for Internet and media companies (and slow lanes for others) would be prevented.

Wheeler is also calling for mobile data service to be included under the proposed open Internet order. However, he explained that the “proposal would avoid invoking many of the FCC’s Title II powers, including the authority to regulate broadband prices or mandate that broadband providers allow competitors to lease space on their networks,” according to The Wall Street Journal.

“Wheeler proposed regulating consumer Internet service as a public utility, saying it was the right path to net neutrality. He also included provisions to protect consumer privacy and to ensure Internet service is available for people with disabilities and in remote areas,” reports The New York Times.

“Wheeler’s plan would also for the first time give the FCC enforcement powers to police practices in the marketplace for handling of data before it enters the gateway network into people’s households — the so-called interconnect market. For good measure, he added a ‘future conduct’ standard to cover unforeseen problems.”

The broadband industry has been largely opposed to using Title II. “Heavily regulating the Internet for the first time is unnecessary and counterproductive,” said Michael E. Glover, a Verizon senior vice president. “It is unnecessary because all participants in the Internet ecosystem support an open Internet, and the FCC can address any harmful behavior without taking this radical step.”

Michael Powell, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association and former FCC chair, suggested the plan would place an unnecessary burden on broadband services and head “beyond the worthy goal of establishing important net neutrality protections.”

In addition, AT&T said that Title II proponents “are only deceiving themselves” and the FCC may need “to defend reclassification before an appellate court.” (Earlier this week, Ars Technica reported that according to a blog post by AT&T Federal Regulatory VP Hank Hultquist, the company would likely challenge Wheeler’s plan in court.)

Meanwhile, supporters of Title II include Amazon, Facebook, Google, and Netflix, in addition to numerous startups and public interest groups who believe that regulation is necessary to guarantee the future of innovation and diversity of expression.

The proposed rules will be circulated to the FCC commissioners today. A vote is scheduled for February 26.