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FCC Chairman Hints at Re-Regulating Net Under Phone System Rules

Net neutrality activists pleased; Internet service providers not so much.

Reuters / Jonathan Ernst

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hinted broadly Wednesday that a new net neutrality proposal he plans to release in the next few weeks will rely on re-regulating Internet lines under old rules written for phone networks.

“The issue here is how do we make sure consumers and innovators have open access to networks,” Wheeler said during a Q&A at International CES. He plans to circulate the proposal among other FCC commissioners on February 5, with a vote on the plan later in the month.

Wheeler’s remarks weren’t that surprising. Re/code (and others) reported previously that he had been planning to suggest re-regulating Internet lines under Title II of the Communications Act, which would give the agency clearer authority to act as an Internet traffic cop. That expectation grew after President Obama not-too-subtly suggested he take that route in November.

After considering various ways of using Title II over the summer, Wheeler said he became convinced it was the way to go because it would give consumers and innovators “the best protections” under the law.

Wheeler’s original net neutrality proposal — which would have allowed Internet providers to offer prioritized, fast-lane service to companies — led to many, many protests, four million angry comments and at least one charge that Wheeler was a dingo.

His position changed dramatically over the past few months, as net neutrality activists, Internet providers and anti-regulation proponents continued to weigh in.

Essentially, Wheeler said he originally considered taking the approach, suggested by a federal appeals court, that the agency rely on a different part of the law that gives the FCC authority to act to increase Americans’ access to broadband. He eventually concluded that didn’t work because that law mostly focused on what is “commercially reasonable.”

“It became obvious that ‘commercially reasonable’ could be interpreted as what is reasonable for the [Internet service providers], not what’s reasonable for consumers and innovators,” Wheeler said.

All fast-lane priority services may not be dead, however. Wheeler suggested that Internet providers might be able to sell priority services in some instances, such as for telemedicine or emergency services. “All along, we’ve recognized that there [are] some instances where prioritization makes sense,” Wheeler told the crowd.

Not surprisingly, net neutrality activists were thrilled by Wheeler’s comments. Consumer group Free Press called it “refreshing to see the chairman firmly reject the industry’s lies and scare tactics.”

Internet providers weren’t nearly as tickled. CTIA, the wireless association, said adopting rules for wireless networks using Title II would be “misplaced and irrelevant.” Meanwhile, a Verizon spokesman said applying “1930s-era utility regulation to the Internet under Title II reclassification would be a radical reversal for what has been an open, competitive and innovative Internet economy.”

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