After his proposal to allow Internet companies to charge Web companies for speedier delivery of their content was met with widespread criticism, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is trying to make the case that it is possible to have Internet fast lanes without slow lanes. He first did so in a letter to tech companies on Friday, and the Wall Street Journal reported Sunday that he has also revised his approach to net neutrality rules.
“I will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service,” he wrote in response to a letter signed by many of Silicon Valley’s most prominent companies. It’s clear that the fast-lane language has proven to be exceptionally bad branding, even among those who don’t necessarily support complete net neutrality. “I worry when people use the phrase ‘fast lane,’ because that implies there’s a slow lane,” Michael O’Rielly, a Republican FCC commissioner opposed to tough net neutrality rules, told C-SPAN recently.
So let the rebranding begin. According to the Journal, Wheeler’s revised rules would call for tough oversight over broadband companies that might be tempted to engage in anticompetitive behavior. This doesn’t mean he’s abandoning the idea of allowing broadband providers to charge a premium for faster service. Instead, he will require that the fast lanes offered to one company must be offered to any company willing to pay the toll.
Wheeler will ask for public input on several ideas related to the new rules, according to the Journal. The first is “paid prioritization”—the lane idea. It is clear from the activity in recent weeks that many people will continue to oppose this. Even if Wheeler were to police broadband providers aggressively, it’s unclear that whoever comes after him would.
The other issue on the table is the idea of reclassifying Internet service as a public utility. The FCC originally designated broadband Internet as an information service in 2002, largely ceding the ability to impose tough regulations on the companies that provide it. But the commission’s attempts to regulate the Internet by other means haven’t held up. A federal court has twice rejected its rules requiring broadband providers to treat all Internet traffic the same, most recently in January. When the court did so, it said that the FCC was attempting to regulate broadband as though it were a utility without actually declaring it as such.
The obvious solution would be to reclassify broadband as a public utility and get on with it, but broadband providers are likely to fight this tooth and nail, because it would signal the end of an era of light regulation for broadband Internet. Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable industry, doesn’t seem eager to take this step—mentioning it seems to be more of a threat to broadband providers about what will happen if they don’t stay in line on their own.