FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Floats Proposed ‘Open Internet’ Rules

Associate Editor

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler announced a plan Wednesday that he said would protect “net neutrality” and reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, giving it the same status as a public utility.

School and library officials had feared that the FCC, acting in response to a federal court ruling, might change policy in a way that would restrict access to online resources.

But Wheeler’s plan seems to go in the opposite direction, in an attempt to protect the flow of content in an unrestricted way. 

Wheeler chose to explain his proposal in an article he penned for Wired magazine, and added more details in a fact sheet about maintaining an open Internet that was posted on the FCC website

His fellow commissioners are considering full drafts of his proposal, which will be voted on at a Feb. 26 meeting of the full board. 

Net neutrality refers to the open and free flow of content on the Web, regardless of where it originates. Last May, new rules were proposed by the chairman, and school officials who follow these regulations expressed concern that they would create a “fast lane,” leaving K-12 systems in a “slow lane.” Libraries also raised red flags about the proposal.

They weren’t the only ones worried about the erosion of neutrality: a record 4 million public comments were registered on the FCC’s website. 

Wheeler has insisted throughout the debate that he would not jeapordize a free and open flow Internet, and would protect schools’ access to online content.

This whole issue of paid prioritization, of fast lanes and slow lanes—schools are not going to have to worry about this,” he said in a sit-down interview with Education Week‘s Sean Cavanagh last year. “[W]e’re not about to increase the connectivity of schools with the E-rate program, and then turn around and gut it through some kind of a rule that makes schools second-class citizens, or makes educational content second-class content.”

In fact, the New York Times reported  that Wheeler’s strong position on an open Internet went beyond guidance he had been given from the White House, and was even stronger than some experts expected.

The chairman’s new proposal would, among other things:

  • Establish legal authority for reclassifying broadband Internet access as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934;
  • Secure new rules for an open Internet that also apply to mobile broadband, recognizing that 55 percent of Internet traffic is carried over wireless networks;
  • Ban practices that impede an open internet, including so-called “fast lanes,” in which some traffic could get faster delivery by paying for that access;
  • Enhance existing transparency rules;
  • Give the commission the authority to hear complaints and take appropriate enforcement action  if it determines that an an Internet service provider’s interconnection is “not just and reasonable.” 

The American Library Association, which is generally pleased with the chairman’s proposal, will be talking with FCC staff about one portion of it that refers to Section 254, which focuses on the the E-rate. That portion indicates that the rules that apply would bolster…support for broadband service in the future “through partial application of Section 254.”

The reference to a “partial” application concerned Larra Clark, the deputy director of the American Library Association’s office for information technology policy. Her organization plans to ask for clarification about it. (Earlier this year, the FCC voted 3-2 to undertake a far-reaching overhaul of the E-rate program, which supports broadband and wireless connectivity in schools and libraries by subsidizing the purchase of their telecommunications services. That move was widely praised by education, library, technology, and industry groups as much needed and long overdue.)

Otherwise, Clark gave the chairman’s proposal high marks, saying, “We commend the FCC for exercising all their sources of authority,” to protect an open Internet. The proposal covers just about everything requested by libraries and higher education, she said, and is a positive step. They would, however, recommend adding “libraries and schools” to Wheeler’s first point in the fact sheet, which states that “Consumers and Innovators Need an Open Internet.”

All of this activity originated with a January 2014 ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia that the FCC did not have the legal authority to prevent telecommunications providers from blocking the delivery of lawful online content or discriminating against certain kinds of content providers.

That ruling, which was considered a blow against net neutrality, has been interpreted as giving commercial Internet providers significantly more power to block content or set conditions on its delivery before it reaches customers.

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