Technology

FCC May Expand Net Neutrality to Cell Phones

Under fire from liberals, the commission chairman hints at broader rules.

The new iPhone 6 is displayed during an Apple special event at the Flint Center for the Performing Arts on September 9, 2014 in Cupertino, California. Apple unveiled the Apple Watch wearable tech and two new iPhones, the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus.
Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
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Brendan Sasso
Sept. 9, 2014, 2:29 p.m.

The Fed­er­al Com­mu­nic­a­tions Com­mis­sion is eye­ing an ex­pan­sion of its net-neut­ral­ity rules to cov­er cell-phone ser­vice.

In a speech Tues­day, FCC Chair­man Tom Wheel­er said that In­ter­net ac­cess on smart­phones is a “key com­pon­ent” of the in­vest­ment and in­nov­a­tion that net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions are in­ten­ded to pro­tect.

“Al­though the com­ment cycle has not yet closed, we are already closely ex­amin­ing the is­sues and the re­cord,” he said at a wire­less in­dustry con­fer­ence in Las Ve­gas, ac­cord­ing to a copy of his pre­pared re­marks. “One of the con­stant themes on the re­cord is how con­sumers in­creas­ingly rely on mo­bile broad­band as an im­port­ant path­way to ac­cess the In­ter­net.”

In 2010, the FCC en­acted net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions that barred home broad­band pro­viders like Com­cast from block­ing or “un­reas­on­ably” dis­crim­in­at­ing against any In­ter­net traffic. But the rules were much weak­er for In­ter­net ser­vice on smart­phones.

Wire­less pro­viders like Ve­r­i­zon and AT&T couldn’t out­right block web­sites, but they were free to speed up or slow down cer­tain ser­vices or ex­empt oth­ers from monthly data caps.

A fed­er­al court struck the rules down earli­er this year, and the FCC is now try­ing to come up with new reg­u­la­tions that can sur­vive fu­ture court chal­lenges. Wheel­er’s ini­tial pro­pos­al sparked a ma­jor back­lash be­cause it would al­low land­line broad­band pro­viders to in some cases charge web­sites for ac­cess to spe­cial “fast lanes.”

In the new pro­pos­al, the FCC asked for in­put on wheth­er to ex­pand the rules to wire­less net­works, but tent­at­ively con­cluded that the light­er reg­u­lat­ory scheme should stay in place. Wheel­er ap­pears to be re­vis­it­ing that de­cision.

He said that there have been “sig­ni­fic­ant changes in the mo­bile mar­ket­place since 2010,” such as faster cel­lu­lar ser­vice and many more people re­ly­ing on their smart­phones to ac­cess the In­ter­net.

He poin­ted to a fil­ing from Mi­crosoft, which urged the com­mis­sion to use the same reg­u­lat­ory frame­work for cell-phone and home In­ter­net pro­viders. Con­sumers now live in a “mo­bile first” world, Mi­crosoft claimed.

Wheel­er re­it­er­ated his cri­ti­cism of cell-phone ser­vice pro­viders for throt­tling In­ter­net speeds for cus­tom­ers with un­lim­ited data plans in cer­tain cir­cum­stances. He also said the pro­viders may have misled the cus­tom­ers by prom­ising them un­lim­ited data.

“I am hard pressed to un­der­stand how either prac­tice, much less the two to­geth­er, could be a reas­on­able way to man­age a net­work,” Wheel­er said.

He ar­gued that just be­cause con­sumers have more choices for cell-phone ser­vice than their home In­ter­net con­nec­tion doesn’t mean that the cel­lu­lar pro­viders won’t re­strict on­line free­dom.

Ex­pand­ing net-neut­ral­ity reg­u­la­tions to cell-phone ser­vice would out­rage the wire­less pro­viders. In a fil­ing to the FCC, wire­less lob­by­ing group CTIA warned that ap­ply­ing the rules to wire­less net­works would risk stifling the in­dustry’s growth.

Wire­less In­ter­net is dif­fer­ent, the group wrote, be­cause of con­straints on how much data the net­works can handle.

The chair­man’s pos­sible shift comes as he is un­der in­tense pres­sure from Demo­crats and lib­er­al ad­vocacy groups to strengthen his rules.

Net­flix, Red­dit, Digg, Moz­illa, and dozens of oth­er sites will dis­play sym­bol­ic load­ing icons on their web­sites Wed­nes­day as part of a protest over the pro­posed rules, which they warn would al­low broad­band pro­viders to dis­tort the In­ter­net in fa­vor of the largest com­pan­ies.

Mi­chael Wein­berg, a vice pres­id­ent for con­sumer ad­vocacy group Pub­lic Know­ledge, said it’s “crit­ic­al” that the FCC ap­ply the same rules to wired and wire­less In­ter­net ac­cess. The FCC can al­low for some flex­ib­il­ity in what it con­siders “reas­on­able” dis­crim­in­a­tion for dif­fer­ent tech­no­lo­gies, Wein­berg said, but it shouldn’t use a totally dif­fer­ent reg­u­lat­ory scheme for wire­less ser­vice like it did in 2010.

“It was a bad idea then, and it would be a worse idea now,” Wein­berg said.

Matt Wood, policy dir­ect­or for Free Press, em­phas­ized that tough­en­ing the wire­less rules wouldn’t be enough to win the sup­port of act­iv­ists. Wheel­er would have to ban any pro­vider from cre­at­ing “fast lanes” on the In­ter­net, Wood said.

“I’m not so much in­ter­ested in any of this un­til Chair­man Wheel­er strengthens the en­tire pro­pos­al,” Wood said. “The par­ity that would res­ult from ad­opt­ing a me­diocre pro­pos­al for both plat­forms won’t help any­one.”

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