Five options for feds on net neutrality

In the coming months, federal regulators will redouble their efforts to write new regulations to ban Internet service providers from interfering with the public’s access to the Web. 

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The Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) attempt at net neutrality regulations have been controversial from the start, and only became more of hotly debate after President Obama took the rare step of weighing in with a specific recommendation earlier this month. 

The commission has delayed the rules to give staffers more time with legal analysis, so regulations originally due out this year could be pushed back for months. Here are five options the FCC could take. 

 

President Obama’s plan

Obama thrilled many Web activists when he called for the “strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality” earlier this month, taking a bold step into the agency’s decision-making. As an independent agency, the FCC is under no obligation to follow Obama’s advice, but the president’s call increased the stakes for the agency and put wind behind the sails of activists looking for strong rules.

The so-called “Title II” approach that Obama endorsed would have the FCC reclassify broadband Internet as a “telecommunications” service instead of an “information” service, which would allow it to draw from stronger rules under Title II of the Communications Act. 

While the distinction may sound trivial, reclassification would give the FCC broad powers to regulate Internet service providers such as Comcast and Time Warner Cable the same way it regulates public utilities.   

Supporters of the move, including many Democrats and public interest groups, say that it’s the only way to safeguard the integrity of the internet and ensure that Web providers can’t block, slow or otherwise limit people’s access to particular websites. 

Opponents, however, have said that it would smother the Internet with outdated rules better suited to last century. Internet service companies have also threatened to sue over this plan, which could tie the issue up in courts for years. 

 

The FCC’s original plan

After the FCC’s previous rules were tossed out by a top appeals court earlier this year, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler unveiled a new proposal that did not reclassify broadband Internet service. Instead, the proposal sought to regulate Internet service providers under legal authority that allows the agency to promote the deployment of broadband. 

The January court decision laid out a “blueprint” for regulating the Internet under that provision, Wheeler said while issuing his proposal in April.

But for many activists, the plan fell short. Most notably, it would allow Web service providers to cut deals with streaming sites such as Netflix in order to speed up users’ connections to the sites, paving the way for “fast lanes” on the Internet that critics said would turn into “toll roads.” 

The FCC received more than 3.9 million comments on the proposal, many of them from Web activists demanding the agency go further.

 

Implement hybrid rules

Before delaying the process until next year, Wheeler was reportedly close to settling on some type of hybrid approach that used a mix of legal authorities to regulate the Web.

One plan reported by the Wall Street Journal would effectively split the Internet into two parts — one retail service for the connection between individual Web users and their Internet service provider, and a separate back-end portion for the connections between Internet service providers and websites. The plan would then reclassify that back-end portion of the Web, but not the service used by individuals to access the Internet.

While trying to straddle the line between the two paths, though, the reported plan ended up upsetting everyone.

The plan would likely still allow companies to cut deals to speed up some service, but it also drew opposition from critics of tough rules who oppose reclassifying any portion of the Internet.

 

Do nothing

Wheeler isn’t likely to back off the issue entirely, though that’s what many Republicans would like.

Instead of having the FCC write new rules, GOP lawmakers and the two Republican commissioners sitting on the FCC have said Wheeler should wait for Congress to act. The courts have twice tossed out attempts to regulate the Web, they note, so the writing should be on the wall. 

In May, Senate Republican leaders urged the FCC to avoid “further legal contortions” to apply rules to the Internet, and called for the commission to “work with the Congress to develop clear statutory authority and direction for the agency so that it can be a productive regulator for the 21st century marketplace.”

 

What to do about wireless?

The FCC’s 2010 net neutrality rules only applied to people accessing the Internet over broadband cable lines, not wirelessly on their cell phones and tablets. 

Many people see the new rules as an opportunity to close that loophole, since most consumers don’t notice a difference between accessing the Internet on their laptop and on their phone.

In his proposal this month, Obama called for the FCC to make its rules “fully applicable to mobile broadband” as well as wired lines, while also recognizing "the special challenges" that come with managing wireless networks. 

The wireless industry has fought back vigorously, pointing to the differences in technology and greater nationwide competition. It is technologically harder to transmit as much information on airwaves than through a wire, the industry notes, and the presence of four major national wireless providers gives people options to ditch any companies that aren’t serving them.

The industry also says it still needs room to grow. 

“Continued flexibility will encourage further innovation and development that may, ultimately, allow wireless to be a more competitive alternative to wireline broadband service,” the CTIA-The Wireless Association trade group argued in a letter to the FCC earlier this month.