FCC chairman says broadband should be treated as utility for net neutrality

The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has proposed net neutrality rules based on reclassifying broadband as a regulated public utility and will ask fellow commissioners to approve that approach later this month.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, as expected, will offer net neutrality rules that reverse a long-standing agency practice of treating broadband as a lightly regulated information service, instead reclassifying it as a regulated common carrier under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

"I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC," Wheeler wrote in a Wired.com opinion piece published Wednesday. "These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services."

Senior FCC officials called the proposal a tailored application of common-carrier regulations by applying only a handful of regulations in Title II. Wheeler's proposal would forbear from some traditional regulations applied to traditional telecom carriers, including broadband rate regulation and requirements to contribute to the FCC's Universal Service Fund, agency officials said.

Wheeler's decision reflects a major evolution in the way he sees net neutrality rules, after he originally proposed regulations that would allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" network management early last year. Wheeler's original proposal came after a U.S. appeals court decision early last year appeared to suggest that approach to net neutrality rules. Subsequently, however, "I became concerned that this relatively new concept might, down the road, be interpreted to mean what is reasonable for commercial interests, not consumers," he wrote in the Wired piece.

Wheeler's net neutrality rules, scheduled for a commission vote Feb. 26, would apply to both wired and mobile broadband service, even though the FCC's 2010 rules, partly thrown out by the appeals court, held mobile carriers to a lower standard. "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," he wrote.

Despite objections from mobile carriers, strong net neutrality rules are needed because about 55 percent of Internet traffic is now carried over mobile networks, the FCC said.

The proposal would cover interconnection arrangements on the Internet backbone, addressing complaints by Netflix that some broadband providers are selectively slowing video traffic at interconnection points. Wheeler's proposal allows broadband providers to engage in "reasonable" network management, but the commission would look at the engineering attributes of the network technology involved to determine what's reasonable, FCC officials said.

The plan would allow consumers and Web-based companies to file net neutrality complaints with the FCC, and it would set a forward-looking net neutrality standard prohibiting ISPs from harming consumers or Web-based companies.

Broadband providers have all but promised they would challenge Title II rules in court. The FCC will have to "grapple" with several issues when it defends a broadband reclassification in court, Hank Hultquist, AT&T's vice president for federal regulatory issues, wrote in a blog post Tuesday.

If the agency redefines broadband as including a common-carrier service, it would empower itself "to regulate virtually every tech company that combines transmission with information to deliver digital goods and services to customers," Hultquist wrote. "Social networks, digital music, video chat, and even Internet search are all examples of information services that are provided via telecommunications, and thus have a transmission component that could be segregated and regulated under Title II."

But the rules will not apply to any other Internet services besides last-mile ISPs, an FCC official said.

Verizon Communications, which had challenged the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules in court, had in recent months supported basic regulations that didn't involve reclassifying broadband.

"Heavily regulating the Internet for the first time is unnecessary and counterproductive," the company said in a statement. "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."

The new rules are "counterproductive because heavy regulation of the Internet will create uncertainty and chill investment among the many players -- not just Internet service providers -- that now will need to consider FCC rules before launching new services," the company added.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

Grant Gross

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