It’s on! FCC plans strong net neutrality for mobile and broadband

The Federal Communications Commission plans to reclassify broadband internet providers so they can’t favor some websites over others, which is the outcome that has been urged by net neutrality advocates, and which would amount to a victory for the open internet.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has yet to release a formal copy of the new rules, which must be circulated to other Commissioners three weeks before a scheduled vote on February 26, but the details have been leaked to the Wall Street Journal. They include a call for so-called Title II reclassification, which would mean a ban on internet “fast lanes”:

A key element of the rule would be a ban on broadband providers blocking, slowing down or speeding up specific websites in exchange for payment, a practice known as paid prioritization, these people say.

Wheeler’s plan to reclassify internet providers is likely to upset ISPs like Verizon, which do not want to be treated like common carriers, but the move had come to seem likely after President Obama last year jolted the net neutrality debate by calling publicly for Title II.

The move will also encompass mobile broadband, which was not covered by former net neutrality rules that were struck down in a major court decision in early 2014, and gave rise to the new proposal.

Another important aspect of the forthcoming rules addresses so-called paid peering arrangements. These involve broadband providers demanding that content providers like Netflix pay to connect their networks directly the ISPs’ networks to ensure their traffic streams are not degraded on the way to consumers — a practice Netflix and others have likened to extortion.

Wheeler’s proposal will reportedly also place peering, which is now unregulated, under Title II:

The proposal would also give the FCC the authority to regulate deals on the back-end portion of the Internet, where broadband providers such as Comcast Corp. and Verizon Communications Inc. pick up traffic from big content companies such as Netflix Inc. and network middlemen like Level 3 Communications Inc. The FCC would decide whether to allow these so-called paid peering deals based on whether it finds them just and reasonable, the standard under Title II.

Today’s leak is sure to touch off a lobbying and public relations tempest ahead of the scheduled February 26 vote. The pushback will come from the cable industry, which has been pushing Republicans in Congress to pass a broadband law that would reduce the FCC’s authority to oversee the internet.

Monday’s leak to the Wall Street Journal is believed to have come from one of the two Republican Commissioners on the FCC. A source close to the agency say Commissioners were recently briefed on the Chairman’s plans.

If the FCC ultimately votes in favor of a proposal that applies Title II classification to both consumer broadband and paid peering, it would be a sea-change from last spring, when Wheeler appeared to be in favor of paid fast lanes.