FCC Asks Public Whether To Go Nuclear On Net Neutrality

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler has hinted at further revisions to the way the FCC approaches net neutrality. But he’s still stopping short of a “pure” implementation of the principles.

Wheeler sparked criticism back in April when the FCC suggested new rules to deal with the problem that, as things stand, it doesn’t have the legal authority to stop carriers treating different Internet traffic in different ways. It suggested new rules saying that although carriers could offer faster access to companies willing to pay for the privilege, this could only happen “in a commercially reasonable manner” and that the details of such payments had to be made public.

Wheeler is now proposing three tweaks to this approach:

* If a carrier offers faster access in return for an extra fee, it must offer the deal to all content companies on the same basis.

* Such deals can only involve a speed increase for those who pay the fee; the carriers can’t actively slow speeds for those who refuse to pay.

* The FCC will have the right to vet such deals to make sure that they don’t put non-payers at an “unfair” disadvantage.

Clearly the issue remains that allowing such deals violates the basic principle of treating all (legal) traffic equally, so the refinements won’t be enough to satisfy critics of the FCC’s plans.

Wheeler has also suggested the FCC will run a public consultation on two issues. Firstly, it will ask where the idea of allowing firms to pay for faster access should be allowed at all.

Secondly, it will ask if the FCC should classify broadband internet as a common carrier (similar to the way fixed line telephone services are regulated), which would mean it would have much greater powers to regulate carriers and impose net neutrality-based rules.

That would be something of a nuclear option as it would almost certainly lead to a lengthy political and legal fight, so it’s surprising Wheeler is raising the issue at this time.

One possibility is that the FCC is ready to start that fight and wants to gather evidence of public support before doing so. Another is that it wants to steer well clear of that approach and is hoping the consultation will show little public interest in reclassifying broadband, giving it justification in concentrating on working within its current boundaries.