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FCC Chairman Unveils Tough New Net Neutrality Rules

Net neutrality rules would apply to wireless networks and middle-mile Internet agreements, unlike the 2010 rules.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler officially proposed tough new rules for Internet lines Wednesday, regulations he said would prohibit wired and wireless broadband providers from “paid prioritization and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.”

The long-awaited proposal represents an about-face for Wheeler. He had previously proposed weaker rules, which were widely panned by net neutrality advocates, Internet companies and Democratic politicians — including President Obama — who wanted the agency to take more definitive action so it could act as an Internet traffic cop.

Broadly, Wheeler has proposed regulating Internet service under rules (Title II of the Communications Act) that were written for the old copper-line phone network. The FCC deregulated Internet lines in 2003, saying that they should be regulated more lightly as an “information service,” but Wheeler is basically advocating reversing that decision.

Wheeler’s rules would prohibit broadband providers from blocking or throttling legal Internet traffic. It would also ban Internet providers from offering fast-lane “paid prioritization” services to Internet companies. Net neutrality advocates feared allowing broadband providers to offer fast-lane services would give them an incentive to slow down their networks to drive demand and create a two-tier Internet.

Also, for the first time, the rules would apply to wireless broadband networks. Four years ago, the FCC exempted wireless providers from net neutrality rules after the industry made the case that its networks were different because they have limited airwaves to offer service. The industry tried that argument again, but Wheeler rejected it, saying consumers expect net neutrality protections no matter how they’re getting online.

Internet providers are livid and are expected to sue as soon as they are able. AT&T laid out its possible court challenge in a blog post earlier this week. CTIA, the wireless industry trade group, has also suggested that it would be open to suing.

Among the proposals, Wheeler has suggested:

Watch Over Peering: The FCC would for the first time get involved in officiating disputes involving middle-mile Internet interconnection or peering deals between Internet providers and companies like Netflix. The proposal would give the FCC “authority to hear complaints and take appropriate enforcement action if necessary, if it determines the interconnection activities of ISPs are not just and reasonable,” according to an agency fact sheet.

No Fast Lanes: The rules would prohibit broadband providers from offering paid priority services to Internet companies. However, the agency would offer some wiggle room for providers who want to offer services that “do not go over the public Internet,” such as Internet phone service or remote health monitoring. That sounds similar to what the agency had previously called “specialized services.” Net neutrality advocates have worried that broadband providers might use that loophole to offer paid priority services.

No New Fees: The agency would specifically exempt broadband service from being required to pay a monthly fee into the federal Universal Service Fund subsidy program. Opponents of new net neutrality rules had suggested that the agency would require those fees, causing consumer monthly bills to rise.

Reasonable Network Management: Wireless and wired broadband providers would be prohibited from blocking or throttling traffic, but they would be given some leeway in how they manage their networks. The practice “must be primarily used for and tailored to achieving a legitimate network management — and not commercial — purpose. For example, a provider can’t cite reasonable network management to justify reneging on its promise to supply a customer with ‘unlimited’ data,” the agency said Wednesday.

The details of the new rules are still unclear and the full proposal won’t be unveiled until after the agency votes on it later this month. It may change, too, as the FCC’s other four commissioners debate the proposal.

Wheeler broadly laid out his vision of net neutrality rules in an editorial published at Wired.com. He called the proposal “the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC” and said there would be “enforceable, bright-line rules.”

Since the FCC is proposing to use voluminous old rules written for old telephone networks that don’t really exist anymore, Wheeler has proposed jettisoning — or forbearing — many provisions in the law.

Wheeler said Wednesday that the new rules would include “no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling” for Internet providers. That’s key because ISPs are concerned about the FCC setting their rates or requiring them to offer rivals reasonable wholesale access to their networks.

The new FCC proposal isn’t a surprise, since Wheeler and his aides have been dropping hints about what would be included for several weeks. Wheeler himself broadly hinted at what the rules would include during a speech last month at the Consumer Electronics Show and, later, with reporters.

“I will propose new open-Internet protections that do not allow blocking, throttling, paid prioritization and any other discriminatory practice,” he said at a press conference in late January.

This article originally appeared on Recode.net.