This Week in Tech: FCC to vote on Internet ‘fast lanes’

The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) this week will take up two hotly contested issues that have roiled both sides of the aisle.

At the top of the commission’s agenda for its monthly meeting on Thursday is a vote to move forward with a new proposal from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler that would allow Internet providers to charge websites for “fast lane” access to users.

Announced earlier this month, Wheeler’s plan would overhaul the agency’s net neutrality rules, which had kept Internet providers from slowing or blocking access to websites until they were struck down by a federal court earlier this year.

Wheeler has promised that the FCC will ensure the “fast lanes” don’t hurt consumers or competition, but the proposed rules have drawn criticism from Democrats who worry about creating a tiered Internet as well as Republicans who have accused the commission of pursuing a regulatory power grab.

The FCC has been flooded with public comments and petitions opposing the rules.Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel noted the public backlash and asked Wheeler to delay the vote until June to allow time for more public input. Commissioner Ajit Pai also called for a delay, citing a desire to focus on the upcoming airwave auction, the other major item on the agenda for the May meeting.

Commissioner Mignon Clyburn has expressed concern about the proposal and pledged to take the public comments into account when voting on it.

Activists and Web companies have been vocal in their opposition. More than 100 companies including Amazon, Google and Twitter said Wheeler’s proposal poses “a grave threat to the Internet,” and activists have pledged to protest outside the FCC’s Washington headquarters with “pots, pans or whatever else you can bang” during the vote. On Friday, more than 10,000 members of MoveOn.org sent stories and comments to the FCC stating how the new rules would hurt them.

But the criticism and calls for delay have not slowed Wheeler, who included the net neutrality proposal on the agenda circulated a week before the meeting. The agency did, however, waive its transparency rules so people can continue to comment on the proposal through the day before the meeting and Wheeler is expected to circulate a revised draft of the rules as soon as Monday. 

During its meeting on Thursday, the FCC will also vote on Wheeler’s plans for next year’s airwave auction. That auction will involve the agency buying back low frequency airwaves — which travel farther and better through walls — from television broadcasters and reselling them to wireless companies looking to boost their cellphone networks.

Wheeler earlier this year announced a plan for the auction that would keep certain wireless companies — especially industry giants AT&T and Verizon — from competing in some parts of the 2015 auction. Under the framework, the auctions in each geographic area will close off to certain bidders once it hits a yet-to-be-
determined revenue benchmark.

Advocates of auction limits say it gives smaller companies a better chance of obtaining the valuable airwaves, while critics worry that limits could drive down auction revenue, which has already been allocated by Congress to fund a nationwide network for first responders.

While much attention has been paid to Wheeler’s potential limits on bidders, some in the tech industry are fighting quietly to have the agency make more of those airwaves available for “unlicensed” use. Unlicensed airwaves fuel consumer electronics devices such as garage door openers and Wi-Fi routers. According to recent filings at the FCC, tech companies — including Microsoft and Google — are asking the agency to set aside more of the auction’s airwaves for unlicensed use.

Back on Capitol Hill, the Senate Judiciary Committee on Tuesday is holding a hearing on the theft of trade secrets and “economic espionage.”

On Wednesday morning, a Senate Appropriations subcommittee will look at “defense research and innovation.” The session will feature testimony from the head of the Pentagon’s innovation laboratory, the Defense Advanced Research Projects, as well as other military research officials.

Federal Trade Commissioner Maureen Ohlhausen is giving the keynote address at a Wednesday event on “big data” at George Mason University’s School of Law.

Ohlhausen, a Republican, has said the ability to use vast amounts of information does not necessarily raise new security questions, though she supports new guidance for companies looking to harness the power.