FCC's Wheeler: Reregulating broadband remains an option

A net neutrality proposal, to be released Thursday, will ask whether to reclassify broadband as a common-carrier utility

The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission will use all the tools at his disposal to stop broadband providers from dividing the Internet into fast and slow lanes, he wrote in a letter to Internet companies critical of his recent net neutrality proposal.

 Tom Wheeler, FCC

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U.S. President Barack Obama has nominated Tom Wheeler to be chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission.

"If someone acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have nots,' I will use every power at our disposal to stop it," including reclassifying broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wrote in a letter to a group of more than 100 Internet companies and advocacy groups. The organizations had voiced concern last week about a net neutrality proposal Wheeler floated in late April.

Wheeler, in a Friday letter, said his proposal is an attempt to reinstate net neutrality rules after an appeals court struck down the agency's old rules in January. As the FCC moves forward, "all options for preserving Internet openness ... remain on the table," including reclassification of broadband as a telecom-style utility, he wrote.

+ ALSO ON NETWORK WORLD FCC commissioner calls for delay in net neutrality vote +

The FCC, in the early 2000s, removed traditional telecom regulations from broadband providers and classified them as a lightly regulated information service. In January, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit ruled that the FCC couldn't use the legal reasoning it did to pass net neutrality rules in 2010, because of the agency's own classification of broadband as an information service.

On Monday, an FCC official confirmed news reports saying Wheeler has modified his April net neutrality proposal in an effort to blunt criticism that his plan would allow broadband providers to divide the Internet into fast and slow lanes.

Internet companies, digital rights groups and other net neutrality advocates have protested his proposal, saying his plan to allow broadband providers to engage in what he called "commercially reasonable" traffic management would lead to pay-for-priority traffic demands.

But Wheeler's proposal, scheduled to be officially released Thursday, will now include language saying the agency will scrutinize any pay-for-traffic-priority deals to ensure that nonpaying websites and services aren't put at a disadvantage.

Wheeler will also seek public comment on whether paid-for-priority agreements should be banned, an FCC official confirmed after a Wall Street Journal report Sunday.

Wheeler will also ask for comments on whether the FCC should reclassify broadband as a common-carrier service, the agency official said. Some net neutrality advocates, including digital rights groups Free Press and Public Knowledge, have called on the FCC to reclassify broadband, subjecting it to telecom-style regulations, including interconnection and universal service requirements.

The FCC is scheduled to vote Thursday on whether to open Wheeler's proposal for public comment. The so-called notice of proposed rulemaking, or NPRM, is the first step in a long process for the FCC to approve new regulations.

Two commissioners, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Ajit Pai, at the five-commissioner agency have called on Wheeler to delay the net neutrality vote.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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