FCC Chief Vows No Internet ‘Slow Lanes’

Tom Wheeler defends his proposed net-neutrality rules.

Thomas Wheeler testifies in his confirmation hearing to become Federal Communications Commission chairman, before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on June 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. Wheeler testified that he supports a spectrum auction but likened it to a Rubik's cube, with many different facets that must be aligned perfectly in order to be completed.
National Journal
Brendan Sasso
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Brendan Sasso
April 29, 2014, 2:20 p.m.

The chair­man of the Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is try­ing to ease fears that he is cav­ing on net neut­ral­ity.

In a blog post Tues­day, Tom Wheel­er said his pro­posed rules would put the FCC “on track to have tough, en­force­able Open In­ter­net rules on the books in an ex­ped­i­tious man­ner, end­ing a dec­ade of un­cer­tainty and lit­ig­a­tion.”

Wheel­er has come un­der fire from lib­er­al law­makers and con­sumer ad­vocacy groups after float­ing new rules that would al­low In­ter­net ser­vice pro­viders to charge web­sites for faster ser­vice as long as the ar­range­ments are “com­mer­cially reas­on­able.” Crit­ics ar­gue that al­low­ing “fast lanes” would tilt the In­ter­net in fa­vor of the largest cor­por­a­tions and stifle new In­ter­net start-ups.

Demo­crat­ic Sen. Al Franken said Tues­day that al­low­ing pay-for-pri­or­ity deals would “des­troy” the open In­ter­net.

But Wheel­er vowed that un­der his rules, it “won’t be pos­sible for an In­ter­net pro­vider to de­grade the ser­vice avail­able to all.”

He said the de­bate over “fast lanes” misses the point. His rules would en­sure that the In­ter­net is “suf­fi­ciently ro­bust” for con­sumers to ac­cess whatever con­tent and ap­plic­a­tions they want, he said.

“De­grad­ing ser­vice in or­der to cre­ate a new ‘fast lane’ would be shut down,” Wheel­er said.

The state­ment ap­pears to in­dic­ate that Wheel­er’s pro­pos­al would bar ISPs from tar­get­ing any web­sites for “slow lanes.” The FCC would al­low ISPs to speed up par­tic­u­lar web­sites only if the pro­vider is not pur­pose­fully slow­ing down over­all ser­vice.

Wheel­er said that In­ter­net pro­viders would not be able to speed up af­fil­i­ated con­tent. So it would be il­leg­al for an ISP to put its own sports net­work in a fast lane. Any­thing that curbs the “free ex­er­cise of speech and civic en­gage­ment” would also be banned, he said.

“In oth­er words, the In­ter­net will re­main an open path­way,” he said.

“If broad­band pro­viders would seek to use the com­mer­cially reas­on­able test as jus­ti­fic­a­tion of activ­it­ies in which users can’t ef­fect­ively use that path­way, or the cap­ab­il­it­ies of it are de­graded, I sug­gest they save their breath since such con­duct would be a vi­ol­a­tion of the Open In­ter­net rules we pro­pose. If any­one acts to de­grade the ser­vice for all for the be­ne­fit of a few, I in­tend to use every avail­able power to stop it.”

Wheel­er is try­ing to re­write the rules in a way that will hold up in court. The D.C. Cir­cuit struck down the old, stronger rules in Janu­ary.

Lib­er­al ad­vocacy groups are pres­sur­ing the FCC to re­clas­si­fy broad­band In­ter­net as a Title II “tele­com­mu­nic­a­tions ser­vice,” which the agency has broad au­thor­ity to reg­u­late. That move would al­low the FCC to re­in­state stronger rules, but would prompt a swift back­lash from Re­pub­lic­ans and busi­ness groups.

Wheel­er said he “won’t hes­it­ate” to use the Title II op­tion if his pro­pos­al turns out to be in­suf­fi­cient.

“If we get to a situ­ation where ar­rival of the ‘next Google’ or the ‘next Amazon’ is be­ing delayed or de­terred, we will act as ne­ces­sary us­ing the full panoply of our au­thor­ity,” he said. “Just be­cause I be­lieve strongly that fol­low­ing the court’s roadmap will en­able us to have rules pro­tect­ing an Open In­ter­net more quickly, does not mean I will hes­it­ate to use Title II if war­ran­ted.”

Net­flix CEO Reed Hast­ings has urged Wheel­er to ex­pand the net neut­ral­ity rules to en­sure that web­sites can con­nect dir­ectly to ISPs’ net­works for free. Net­flix has had to pay Com­cast and, most re­cently, Ve­r­i­zon for in­ter­con­nec­tion deals to im­prove video qual­ity. Even the old rules would not have pro­hib­ited the deals be­cause they in­volve the way net­works con­nect to each oth­er, as op­posed to how traffic flows in­to sub­scribers’ homes.

Wheel­er said that while the is­sue is out­side of his net-neut­ral­ity pro­pos­al, he will ask for com­ments on how the FCC should reg­u­late in­ter­con­nec­tion deals.

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