AT&T head makes personal appeal on ‘fast lane’ proposal

AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson had a rare personal conversation with the head of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) over new potential rules for the Internet, according to new documents.

The telecom executive spoke with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Monday and urged him not to enact tough regulations on Internet service providers such as AT&T by reclassifying broadband Internet service to treat it like traditional phone lines.

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Taking that potentially controversial step would be “contrary” to the FCC’s precedent and “would negatively impact” companies’ ability to build out new high-speed broadband networks, Stephenson told Wheeler, according to a federal filing

Stephenson told Wheeler that the FCC had all the authority it needed to ban “fast lanes” on the Internet without resorting to that step.

Supporters of strong net neutrality rules — which aim to ban companies such as AT&T or Comcast from blocking or slowing people’s access to one particular website over another — have disagreed. Unless the FCC reclassifies broadband, companies would be able to cut deals to speed up service to particular websites, they warn, which would amount to “fast lanes” and “slow lanes” on the Internet. 

In addition to Stephenson’s conversation with Wheeler on Monday, AT&T Executive Vice President James Cicconi made the same point in a conversation with one of Wheeler’s top aides. 

The FCC is under tremendous pressure with its new net neutrality rules, which are expected by the end of the year.

A “hybrid” plan floated in recent days has met stern opposition from both industry groups and supporters of strong rules, emphasizing the tough spot that the FCC is in.

Companies have threatened to sue over strong rules that reclassify broadband Internet service, which could drag the issue out for years.

Net neutrality was a central issue of President Obama’s 2008 campaign, and he has recently urged the FCC to enact strong rules to ban “fast lanes” on the Internet, but declined to support a specific policy approach.