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FCC moves forward on net neutrality plan: What now?

So what happens now that the Federal Communications Commission voted to release a net neutrality proposal and seek public comments?

The FCC vote releases a so-called notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, where the agency proposes new rules and asks for public comment on them. The release of the 99-page NPRM Thursday sets off a 120-day comment period on the proposed rules, with 60 days for initial comments and 60 days for comments that respond to the first round of discussion.

Here’s an overview of what happens next in the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding:

Who can comment on the proposed rules?

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FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Anyone who has an opinion can comment. While the FCC’s proceedings are often heavy with comments from companies and trade groups affected by the proposed action, members of the general public can also comment. In the past month, people have filed more than 21,000 comments on the FCC’s net neutrality proceeding.

Asked about the firestorm over his net neutrality proposal, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said Thursday that he’s encouraged by the level of public participation. “We want this kind of discussion,” he said. “We want this kind of debate. It is healthy, it is good, it produces good results.”

Where can I comment?

An easy way to comment is to go to the FCC’s comment page, which a link to the proposal officially titled, “protecting and promoting the open Internet.” Clicking on the proceeding number, 14-28, takes you to a Web form where you can leave a comment.

The FCC’s email box for the proceeding is also still working. It’s at openinternet@fcc.gov. The FCC’s phone number is 1-888-225-5322, although the agency in recent days has encouraged people to send comments electronically instead of calling.

While anonymous comments are allowed on the FCC website, comments may be taken more seriously if you leave your name.

When does the FCC expect to pass new net neutrality rules?

FCC officials have said they hope to have new rules in place by the end of the year. Wheeler said he’s pushing for the process to happen quickly because a U.S. appeals court struck down old net neutrality rules in January.

Do the rules proposed by Wheeler allow broadband providers to charge Web services for prioritized traffic?

The proposal seeks comment on whether the FCC should ban pay-for-priority business models. During Thursday’s hearing, Wheeler also emphasized that he would consider any broadband provider’s efforts to throttle traffic to customers to be an unreasonable and prohibited practice.

“There is one Internet,” he said. “It must be fast, it must be robust and it must be open. The speed and quality of the connection a consumer purchases must be unaffected by what content he or she is using.”

It’s “unacceptable” for broadband providers to be gatekeepers of Web content, he added.

Wheeler, however, said an agreement earlier this year that gives Netflix faster speeds on Comcast’s network is a peering arrangement not covered by net neutrality rules. The FCC is looking into complaints about peering arrangements, he said, but that issue is separate from net neutrality.

What are the prospects that the FCC will regulate broadband as a common carrier, utility-style service, as some net neutrality advocates have called for?

Wheeler said he still believes the best way to pass net neutrality rules is to follow a road map set out by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in January. The court pointed to a section of the Telecommunications Act that gives the commission authority to promote broadband deployment as the hook for passing new net neutrality rules, while some groups have called for the commission to take the bigger step and reclassify broadband under old telecom regulations.

Wheeler believes his approach would be the quicker way to restore net neutrality rules, although he also said he’s open to all options. If the commission moved to reclassify broadband, it would likely face a lengthy court fight initiated by broadband providers, and a potential backlash in Congress.

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