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U.S. FCC pressured to regulate broadband in net neutrality spat

Grant Gross | May 2, 2014
Net neutrality advocates call on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service.

Critics who say a new U.S. Federal Communications Commission proposal to restore net neutrality rules is too weak are increasing pressure on the agency to reclassify broadband as a regulated, common-carrier service like the traditional telephone network.

Net neutrality advocates and members of the public in recent days have pushed the agency to redefine broadband as a common carrier subject to a wide-ranging set of regulations, including interconnection rules and geographical service obligations, instead of adopting a proposal announced last week by FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Wheeler's proposal, scheduled to be released to the public on May 15, would allow broadband providers to engage in commercially reasonable traffic management and, in limited cases, allow providers to charge some Web services for priority traffic, according to preliminary information from the FCC. Wheeler proposed the new rules after an appeals court, in January, threw out an earlier version of the FCC's net neutrality regulations.

The possibility of pay-for-priority service has raised an outcry among some Internet users, digital rights groups and Democratic lawmakers, with critics saying Wheeler's plan would gut net neutrality protections for consumers.

Even the most strong advocates of reclassification acknowledge, however, that such a move by the FCC would lead to another court battle. Still, it's within the FCC's authority to reclassify broadband after it deregulated the service in 2005, said Matt Wood, policy director for digital rights group Free Press.

The FCC would "get sued, of course," he said. "ISPs would argue that the facts haven't changed, and thus that the FCC can't change course now. But there's just no reasonable or legally sound way to argue that the FCC gets to make this decision one time and yet can never make a different decision."

On the other side, several Republican lawmakers have objected to Wheeler's decision to reintroduce any net neutrality rules after the court struck down the earlier version. Net neutrality rules are "a solution in search of a problem," U.S. Representatives Fred Upton, a Michigan Republican, and Greg Walden, an Oregon Republican, said in a joint statement.

"The marketplace has thrived and will continue to serve customers and invest billions annually to meet Americans' broadband needs without these rules," said the two senior members of the House Energy and Commerce Committee.

Wheeler, in a blog post Tuesday and a speech before the National Cable and Telecommunications Association trade show in Los Angeles Wednesday, defended his proposal.

"All regulatory options remain on the table," he wrote in the blog post. "If the proposal before us now turns out to be insufficient or if we observe anyone taking advantage of the rule, I won't hesitate to use [reclassification]."


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