Wheeler to Take Title II Route in Net Neutrality Proposal

UPDATE: Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler has confirmed that he will propose regulating the internet under Title II of the Communications Act to establish net neutrality rules. Wheeler made his announcement in a blog post on Wired.com.

As expected, Wheeler’s plan would exempt broadband companies from certain Title II requirements, such as tariffs and rates regulations. The chairman also wants the FCC to extend net neutrality protections to mobile internet devices.

Here’s our original story:

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to propose regulating the internet more like a public utility, a move that internet activists argue is the only way to establish strong net neutrality rules that will stand up to inevitable court challenges from the broadband industry.

Several news sources are reporting that Wheeler’s latest net neutrality proposal, which will be submitted to his fellow commissioners on Thursday, would reclassify the internet under Title II of the Communications Act, allowing the FCC to regulate the internet as a telecommunications service like landline telephones instead of an information service. The FCC will vote on the proposed rules at its next meeting on February 26.

Under Title II, communications service providers must provide consumers with services and prices that are deemed “just and reasonable” by federal regulators.

Progressives, internet activists, tech companies and President Obama have all endorsed the Title II route, which they say would give the FCC legal authority to enforce tough rules establishing the core concepts of net neutrality – preventing broadband providers from blocking or discriminating against web content and striking so-called “fast lane” deals with content providers that can afford special fees to reach consumers faster.

“The FCC appears to be moving toward achieving one of the most important victories for the public interest in its history,” said Craig Aaron, CEO of the pro-net neutrality group Free Press. “Title II is the best legal means to ensuring everyone’s right to connect with everyone else online.”

The broadband industry has long opposed the change, arguing it would lead to burdensome regulations that would stifle innovations and investment in expanding networks. Wheeler, however, has suggested that the net neutrality proposal will exempt broadband providers from some of the more cumbersome Title II requirements, such as allowing the government to interfere with pricing schemes.

Backed by the industry, Republicans in Congress have introduced legislation that would establish similar net neutrality rules, but prevent the FCC from using key portions of federal law to regulate broadband providers in the future.

Wheeler has publicly warned against the GOP effort to tie his agency’s hands, and the legislation is facing an uphill battle, with Democrats wary of providing bipartisan support to proposals that would compromise the president’s plan for safeguarding an open internet, according to reports.

Reports have also suggested that Wheeler’s proposal will extend net neutrality protections to both wired services and mobile services for smart phones and tablets.

“Such parity will ensure that consumers who access the internet via mobile services are not relegated to second-class internet service,” said Kate Forscey, internet rights fellow with the digital rights group Public Knowledge.

Over the past year, activists have put mounting pressure on Wheeler to reclassify the internet. Wheeler was originally skeptical of Title II reclassification and proposed classifying the internet under a different section of federal law while using the FCC’s regulatory authority to intervene if broadband providers struck “fast lane” deals that are not “commercially reasonable.”

As activists rallied and millions of public comments in support of reclassification flooded the FCC’s inbox, Wheeler agreed to keep the Title II proposal on the table and later indicated that he would support reclassification.

“We have come a long way since the Commission’s official proposal last May, and the finish line is in sight,” Forscey said. “Millions of people spoke out against a proposal that would have allowed a few powerful internet providers to choose winners and losers on the internet. It appears the Commission has listened and is prepared to do its job to preserve the open internet for all Americans.”

Some net neutrality advocates have been skeptical of Wheeler, who worked as a lobbyist for the telecom industry before being appointed to the FCC by Obama. It appears, however, that Wheeler is not only listening to consumers, but he is willing to stand up for them as well.

Last week, Wheeler told reporters that the internet is the most powerful network “in the history of mankind.”

“So the responsible question for an agency like us becomes: How are we going to make sure that in the broadband future, there are yardsticks in place to determine what is in the best interests of consumers, as opposed to what is in the best interest of gatekeepers?” Wheeler said.

On Monday, Wheeler announced that the FCC would vote on preempting state laws originally pushed by the broadband industry in Tennessee and North Carolina that have prevented world-class, community-owned broadband services from expanding in those states and competing with private providers.

Last week, Wheeler’s Democratic majority at the FCC voted to change the definition of broadband internet from a minimum of 4 megabits per second to 25 megabits per second, a major step toward pressuring broadband providers to deliver faster services to more consumers.

While Wheeler’s most recent moves may be encouraging to consumer advocates, they are still cautiously waiting to see the details of his net neutrality proposal.

“We can’t judge what we have yet to see, since the details of the final FCC item aren’t yet available,” Aaron said. “From all indications, Chairman Wheeler seems intent on choosing the correct path to protecting the open internet. If the FCC does that – and also keeps the final order free of loopholes and industry meddling – the chairman should be cheered by the millions who have mobilized to save the internet.”