U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler just pulled out the big gun in the net neutrality battle: In an op-ed published on Wired, Wheeler announced a proposal to invoke the agency’s Title II authority, which would allow the FCC to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility, similar to phone service. And he did so in strong, no-nonsense terms:
“Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC. These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband.”
The hardline stance comes after Wheeler floated another net neutrality proposal in 2014 that would allow Internet service providers to engage in “commercially reasonable” traffic management, which led to fears of Internet fast lanes. The addition of mobile broadband to Wheeler’s new proposal is another surprise, since the net neutrality mandate that passed in 2010 (and was subsequently shot down in court) specifically excluded mobile networks.
While net neutrality advocates have long called for the FCC to invoke Title II authority over broadband, ISPs are strongly opposed to the idea. The 2010 version of net neutrality was deemed illegal after a lawsuit from Verizon. If Wheeler’s new proposal passes muster with his fellow FCC commissioners on February 26—as it likely will, given that dissenting Republicans only hold two of the five commissioner seats—it will undoubtedly draw even more lawyerly attention from the industry.
Wheeler says his proposal will modernize Title II to make it more appropriate for the Internet age, however. “For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling,” he wrote. “Over the last 21 years, the wireless industry has invested almost $300 billion under similar rules, proving that modernized Title II regulation can encourage investment and competition.”
After years of being wishy-washy on net neutrality, the FCC is preparing for war. Let’s end with one more quotation from Wheeler—one that drives home the heart of the issue, in these days of throttled Netflix connections, appalling broadband speeds, and seriously overpriced Internet:
“Broadband network operators have an understandable motivation to manage their network to maximize their business interests. But their actions may not always be optimal for network users.”
The FCC will be holding a call about Wheeler’s Title II net neutrality proposal at 12:30 P.M. ET. We’ll have more information after that.