FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Finally Reveals His Net Neutrality Plan

Giuseppe Macri Tech Editor
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After months of speculation, heated debate and protest from Internet consumers, providers and regulators from President Obama on down, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday finally announced his intentions to reclassify and regulate the Internet as a public utility to ensure net neutrality.

Wheeler outlined his intentions to reclassify and regulate broadband, wired and wireless Internet service providers (ISPs) as public utilities under a modernized interpretation of the 1996 Telecommunications Act in a Wednesday Wired op-ed(RELATED: FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Announces Net Neutrality Plan)

“Using this authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC,” Wheeler wrote. “These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services.”

Under Wheeler’s tailored “21st century” Title II authority, the FCC would regulate ISPs much the same way it oversees telephone services — an authority it was granted by the Clinton administration in 1996, but which was struck down by a federal court last January. At the time, the court ruled against the agency precisely because it was treating ISPs too much like common carriers, and the agency has spent the year since considering a new approach and hearing public comments.

All of this can be accomplished while encouraging investment in broadband networks. To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks. For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling. 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.

Though Wheeler did not go into specifics, his statement implies the FCC will, among other things, prevent companies including Verizon, AT&T, Comcast and Time Warner Cable from establishing tiered lanes of Internet service speeds, or require users and content providers, such as Netflix, to pay more for the service speed necessary to disseminate their content. The FCC will also prevent those ISPs from segregating or prioritizing traffic and blocking certain content completely.

Congress wisely gave the FCC the power to update its rules to keep pace with innovation. Under that authority my proposal includes a general conduct rule that can be used to stop new and novel threats to the internet. This means the action we take will be strong enough and flexible enough not only to deal with the realities of today, but also to establish ground rules for the as yet unimagined.

The objectives highlighted by Wheeler reflect a statement issued by President Obama earlier this year in which the White House called for strong regulation of ISPs in order to ensure net neutrality, including wireless service providers, which will also face the same regulations under Wheeler’s plan. (RELATED: Obama Announces Support For Net Neutrality)

After rumors of Wheeler’s forthcoming intentions began circulating earlier this week, companies including AT&T announced their intentions to file a lawsuit against the agency to fight the new regulations and maintain the independence established by the court a year ago. They will no doubt be joined by congressional Republicans, many of whom have argued against such regulation in the year since the debate began. (RELATED: Ted Cruz: ‘Net Neutrality Is Obamacare For The Internet’)

Wheeler said he will be distributing his plan to his fellow FCC commissioners this week. The agency is expected to vote on the plan on Feb. 26, but with only two Republican commissioners out of the full five, it will likely pass. After that, it will no doubt face undermining legislation from Congress and lawsuits seeking to overturn it from ISPs.

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