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

PCWorld News

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.”

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.

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.”

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