Federal Action on ‘Net Neutrality’ Coming Soon, FCC Chairman Says

Senior Editor

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission said the agency will announce plans “in the coming days” for how it will act on net neutrality, a potentially pivotal issue for Internet consumers, including schools.

It’s been about a month since a U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia issued a decision that struck down the FCC’s net neutrality rules, policies that support the principle of a free and open Internet, and the idea that Internet service providers should be required to treat all Web content the same in bringing it to customers, regardless of the source. The FCC’s rules had been challenged by Verizon, which had argued that the agency had overstepped its authority.

The case has potentially major implications for all sorts of consumers of Web content. Without guarantees of net neutrality, some fear that telecommunications companies could delay the delivery of Internet material from companies they view as competitors, or charge certain content providers higher fees to deliver information more quickly, leaving some consumers, such as schools, with slower access, or a narrow set of resources from which to choose.

Immediately after the court ruling, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said the agency would consider appealing the decision. Another option—one favored by some advocacy groups—would be for the five-member FCC to rewrite its rules to give it clearer authority in regulating the Internet.

In a speech Monday at the University of Colorado, Boulder’s law school, Wheeler did not specifically say what action the FCC would take. But he said the court’s decision had given the FCC sufficient legal authority through the Telecommunications Act of 1996 to stand its ground in setting regulations that shape the online arena.

The court “invited the commission to act to preserve a free and open Internet,” Wheeler said, according to a transcript of his speech. “I accept that invitation, and in the coming days, I will be outlining how I propose to proceed.”

Some advocates of an open Internet worry that without net neutrality, Internet service providers could even restrict access to various content based on what’s popular, or what’s financially lucrative to them, impeding schools’ and libraries’ ability to access information from a variety of sources.

Wheeler’s speech offered a broader argument that the FCC needs to use its authority to interpret the Telecommunications Act, and enforce the law so that consumers, and competition via the Web, are protected. The FCC’s authority is especially important, he said, given the rapid pace of technological change and Internet speeds, which means that even if Congress were to rewrite the telecommunications law, it would be “out of date the moment it is signed.”

“[T]he FCC has the authority it needs to provide what the public needs—open, competitive, safe, and accessible broadband networks,” Wheeler added. “Indeed, that we have authority is well-settled. What remains open is not jurisdiction, but rather the best path to securing the public interest.”

Congress could attempt to fashion a law that shapes the landscape on net neutrality, specifically. And some lawmakers have put forward a plan for acting on that front.

A group of Democratic lawwmakers, including U.S. Sen. Edward J. Markey of Massachusetts, recently introduced “The Open Internet Preservation Act,” which would restore the FCC rules struck down by the court, until the commission was able to address the issue on its own.

“The Internet’s vitality and openness drives competition, innovation, and job creation, and we need to ensure it remains a level playing field for consumers and innovators,” Markey said in a statement. “This bill ensures consumers are protected until the FCC uses its clear authority, as recognized by the court, to put in place replacement rules.”

It’s been a busy time for the FCC. The agency last week announced plans for making a series of changes to the E-rate, a federal program it oversees, that include boosting support for schools’ and libraries’ adoption of high-speed broadband. Some ed-tech advocates have argued that the FCC’s action should only be regarded as a first step, and that a more ambitious expansion of the program’s overall base of funding is needed.

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