The U.S. Federal Communications Commission has voted to release a hotly debated proposal to reinstate net neutrality rules, asking whether it should move forward a proposal allowing broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management or whether it should regulate broadband as a common-carrier utility.
The FCC's vote Thursday to approve a notice of proposed rulemaking now opens it to public comment for 120 days. The notice, or NPRM, asks whether the commission should bar broadband providers from charging Web content providers for priority traffic, which some net neutrality advocates have feared Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal would allow.
Wheeler's proposal would prohibit broadband providers from selectively blocking traffic, but his proposal also would allow the controversial practice of allowing broadband providers to manage traffic in "commercially reasonable" ways.
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Despite criticism from fellow commissioners, Wheeler defended the proposal, saying the FCC would find many of the possible broadband provider practices feared by net neutrality advocates unreasonable. If a broadband provider charges a service like Netflix a fee to access the Internet connection for which a customer has already paid, that would be an unreasonable practice prohibited by the FCC, he said.
Wheeler's proposal, he said, would consider the slowing of broadband connections by providers to be unreasonable and prohibited. "When a consumer buys specified capacity from a network provider, he or she is buying open capacity, not capacity where the network provider can prioritize for their own profit purposes," he said. "Simply put, when a consumer buys a specified bandwidth, it is commercially unreasonable, and thus a violation of this proposal, to deny them the full connectivity and the full benefits that connection enables."
Wheeler defended his proposal, in the face of "thousands" of emails and phone calls raising concerns about it.
"I don't like the idea that the Internet could be divided into haves and have-nots, and I will work to see that does not happen," he said. "We will use every power to stop it. The prospect of a gatekeeper choosing winners and losers on the Internet is unacceptable."
Two commissioners, Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel and Republican Ajit Pai both criticized Wheeler's decision to push forward with the proposal, despite public outcry. The commission should have taken more time to listen to concerns, they both said.
But Wheeler said FCC action is needed after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit threw out old net neutrality rules in January. The commission's action on Thursday is just the first step toward new rules, he noted.
Pai, who voted against the NPRM, said the commission should defer to Congress on an issue as important as net neutrality. He questioned calls to regulate broadband providers like a telecom service or utility, saying it would reverse a long-standing U.S. policy to keep the Internet largely unregulated.
"Nobody thinks of plain, old telephone service or utilities as cutting edge, but everyone recognizes that the Internet has boundless potential, and that's because governments didn't set the bounds early on," he said.
Pai criticized Wheeler's proposal as a muddy middle ground between regulation and a free-market approach. Wheeler's proposal is a "lawyerly one that proposes a minimal-level-of-access rule and a not-too-much discrimination rule," he said. "To date, no one outside this building has asked me to support this proposal."
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.