Obama: Broadband should be regulated as a utility

The president also calls on the FCC to stop broadband providers from charging content companies to prioritize their traffic

President Barack Obama has made his strongest statement on net neutrality to date, calling on the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a regulated utility, and to prohibit broadband providers from charging Web content producers for paid traffic prioritization.

Obama on Monday called on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a common carrier, subject to telephone-style regulations, and to ban broadband carriers from selectively blocking or throttling Web traffic. The president waded into a contentious debate about reclassifying broadband, coming down on the opposite side of many large broadband carriers.

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Reclassifying broadband would "keep the Internet free and open," Obama said in a video message. "In plain English, "I'm asking [the FCC] to recognize that, for most Americans, the Internet has become an essential part of everyday communication and everyday life."

Obama's proposal also clashes with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler's original net neutrality plan, which would have stopped short of reclassifying broadband under Title II of the Communications Act and instead allowed broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" traffic management. Wheeler's original plan would have also allowed for some paid prioritization, although the FCC chairman now says he's open to a range of paths to pass new rules, including reclassification.

The FCC is an independent agency, and Obama has no direct power to force the agency to act. Nearly 4 million people submitted comments in the FCC's ongoing net neutrality proceeding, and many of those people have asked the FCC to ensure that "consumers, not the cable company, gets to decide what sites they use," Obama said.

Obama's proposal would include a handful of "bright-line" rules for broadband providers. It would prohibit them from blocking legal websites and online services and from intentionally slowing down or speeding up some Web traffic. His proposal would require broadband providers to be transparent about their traffic management practices and it would ban paid prioritization arrangements.

The president's proposal could also go farther than most other plans by potentially extending net neutrality rules to traffic peering relationships at the central core of the Internet. Traffic peering and interconnection agreements among broadband providers, back-end network providers and heavy traffic generator Netflix have generated controversy during the past couple of years, with Netflix and back-end providers accusing broadband providers of manipulating traffic as a way to throttle Netflix streams, and broadband providers leveling similar accusations at the other parties.

While the FCC's Wheeler has said back-end interconnection deals are not part of the agency's current net neutrality inquiry, Obama called on the agency, if necessary, "to apply net neutrality rules to points of interconnection between the ISP and the rest of the Internet."

Verizon Communications and mobile trade group CTIA both blasted Obama's plan.

Reclassification would apply "1930s-era utility regulation to the Internet [and] would be a radical reversal of course that would in and of itself threaten great harm to an open Internet, competition and innovation," Verizon said in a statement. "That course will likely also face strong legal challenges and would likely not stand up in court."

Reclassification under Title II would also be "gratuitous," because the FCC has authority elsewhere in the Communications Act to pass net neutrality rules, Verizon said. A U.S. appeals court, in striking down most of a 2010 version of net neutrality rules, said the FCC has authority to pass new rules under a section of the law that gives the agency responsibility for encouraging broadband deployment.

CTIA said it "strongly opposes" reclassification."Imposing antiquated common carrier regulation, or Title II, on the vibrant mobile wireless ecosystem would be a gross overreaction that would ignore the bipartisan views of members of Congress and the FCC, would impose inappropriate regulation on a dynamic industry and would threaten mobile provider' ability to invest and innovate, all to the detriment of consumers," CTIA President and CEO Meredith Attwell Baker, said in a statement.

Advocates of strong net neutrality rules praised Obama's proposal.

"When the leader of the free world says the Internet should remain free, that's a game changer," Senator Ed Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement. "I commend President Obama for proudly standing up for an open Internet that will remain free of fast and slow lanes for consumers and companies. Net neutrality is as a basic to the functioning of the Internet as nondiscrimination is to the U.S. Constitution."

After nearly 4 million comments and public protests in favor of strong net neutrality rules, "President Obama finally gets it, and can say so," Holmes Wilson, codirector of digital rights group Fight for the Future, added by email. "He gets why Americans are furious at the prospect of cable companies controlling what we read, watch, and build online."

Advocates are still concerned that the FCC will take a different approach, Wilson said. "At this point it should be unthinkable that Tom Wheeler would defy both the American public and the president, but we hope President Obama is prepared to demote him if he doesn't move forward in good faith with Title II reclassification," he said.

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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