FCC chairman outlines strong Internet protections

Wheeler's modern Title II approach would prevent rate regulation of providers

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler today laid out an ambitious net neutrality plan that calls for the "strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC."

In a description of his plan posted on Wired, Wheeler said he would propose that the full commission use its Title II authority in the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to regulate Internet service providers in ways that ban payments for priority treatment of traffic or allow blocking or throttling of lawful content and services. The Title II rules would be applied to mobile broadband providers for the first time and not only wired broadband providers.

"My proposal assures the rights of Internet users to go where they want, when they want and the rights of innovators to introduce new products without asking anyone's permission," Wheeler wrote in Wired.

In taking the Title II direction in his recommendations, Wheeler stands nearly in line with President Obama's postion on net neutrality outlined last November. Wireless carriers, including AT&T and Verizon Wireless and the CTIA wireless trade association,  have argued against applying the common carrier provisions of Title II, saying they would needlessly bring too much costly and time-consuming regulation on their industry.

Wheeler originally had backed the less strict Telecommunications Act Section 706 approach favored by many Internet providers, but said he had recently become concerned that it could be interpreted to "mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers."

At the same time, Wheeler said he favors a "modernized" Title II approach that prevents the FCC from rate and tariff regulation of ISPs and allows carriers to keep a measure of control over the "last mile" of connections to homes and businesses. He noted that the wireless industry has invested almost $300 billion in the past 21 years, which proves that "modernized Title II regulations can encourage investment and competition."

Wheeler also said his proposal includes a "general conduct rule" that the FCC can use to "stop new and novel threats to the Internet."

Even with the modernization approach Wheeler has proposed, experts say trade groups and carriers will file lawsuits against the FCC if Wheeler's concept passes. The full commission is expected to vote on the proposal Feb. 26.

Aside from Wheeler, the other four FCC commissioners haven't laid out complete proposals for net neutrality reforms, although they had a chance to indicate their views publicly on a panel at International CES in early January. At that event, Commissioner Ajit Pai urged the FCC to stay independent of Obama and said the use of Title II regulations could jeopardize an open Internet. However, Pai's statement was before Wheeler forwarded a fully developed plan with a modernized approach to Title II.

Also at CES, Wheeler strongly suggested his interest in agreeing with Obama's Title II approach, saying, "There is a way to do Title II right that says many parts of Title II are inappropriate and would thwart [network] investment."

At CES, Wheeler also said was interested in creating a set of "just and reasonable" rules on service providers.

As soon as Wheeler's views were posted on Wired, critics began tweeting and emailing their opposing positions. Wheeler's Title II approach to "classify broadband as a telecommunications service in order to apply common carrier regulations is an unjustified, overblown response to what has in actuality been a by-and-large hypothetical concerns," wrote Doug Brake, a policy analyst at the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation, in a statement.

He called using Title II a "dramatic reversal of the light-touch regulatory policy that has seen the Internet flourish through the tenure of the past five FCC chairmen."

The FCC posted a fact sheet about Wheeler's proposed rules

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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