Web providers make late pitch to delay net neutrality rules

Internet service providers are demanding that the head of the Federal Communications Commission delay controversial net neutrality rules to examine their impact on small companies.

Three trade groups asked Chairman Tom Wheeler on Friday not to circulate the new rules among his four fellow commissioners until the commission holds a hearing to examine how the rules would affect small companies.  

The draft rules and an initial analysis of their affect on small businesses, which were circulated last year, “significantly understate, if not ignore completely, the significant impact of the FCC’s proposed rules on small business providers and the communities in which they serve,” officials at the American Cable Association, National Cable and Telecommunications Association and the Wireless Internet Service Providers Association wrote in their letter.

The biggest concern for the companies is the possibility that the FCC will reclassify broadband Internet service so that it can be regulated under rules for public utilties, such as traditional phone service. Wheeler has dropped multiple hints that the new rules will take that politically controversial step, which would be a dramatic turnaround from the draft rules proposed last spring.

Yet the FCC never analyzed the effect that that regulatory change would have on smaller companies, the trade groups said, as is required by law.

“It is simply improper for the FCC to apply the same rules to thousands of smaller broadband providers without considering the impact on their ability to continue providing service in rural and smaller markets,” they wrote.  

They called for a new public hearing to give the commission “the opportunity to hear directly from the small companies whose businesses would be most affected by the regulations now under consideration...”

While the commission has not held a public session focused solely on the impact the rules would have on smaller companies, all three organizations have made multiple visits to the FCC to discuss the rules in recent weeks and months.

The new request comes just a few weeks before Wheeler is scheduled to circulate the rules to the FCC's four other commissioners on Feb. 5. A vote is planned for Feb. 26.

In advance of the rules, as the odds of reclassification have increased, companies have become more vocal about the harm that tough rules would do to their business. Some have pledged to sue, arguing that the agency would be breaking the law by reclassifying Web service. 

Supporters of reclassification, including President Obama, say that it is the only way to ensure that Web providers can’t abuse consumers by blocking, slowing or otherwise interfering with their access to the Internet.