FCC Chair May Be Softening Stance On Ridiculous Internet Fast Lane Proposal

Since it was revealed that FCC Chair Tom Wheeler’s new net neutrality proposal includes allowances for “fast lanes,” in which deep-pocketed content companies can pay extra for faster and better access to customers, he’s taken heat from tech companies, consumer advocates, lawmakers, and even members of his own commission. Now comes news that Wheeler may be up to relaxing his stance on this issue.

According to the Wall Street Journal, Wheeler is still intent on moving forward with having the full FCC vote on his proposal later this week, but he’s now in the process of making 11th-hour changes aimed at answering some of his critics.

Many have raised concerns that allowing fast lanes would result in a decline in the quality of service provided to those content companies that don’t pay for fast lane access. The Journal says that a new addition to Wheeler’s proposal would “make clear that the FCC will scrutinize the deals to make sure that the broadband providers don’t unfairly put nonpaying companies’ content at a disadvantage,” along with creating an ombudsman with “significant enforcement authority” to represent startup companies.

This alone will almost certainly not quiet critics of fast lanes, as there is little comfort in a federal agency — let alone one chaired by the former front man for both the wireless and cable industries — telling small businesses and consumers it has their back.

And so there are two additional provisions that may make their way into the draft.

The first would seek comment on whether or not to enact an outright ban on fast lanes. Wheeler has argued that these “paid prioritization” deals would not violate the spirit of net neutrality because Internet service providers are still banned from blocking or degrading service. However, critics contend that there is no such thing as a half-neutral Internet, and that ISPs will do everything they can to get as many content companies to pay top-dollar for fast lane access.

Wheeler has cautioned that a ban on fast lanes would result in another legal challenge from ISPs like Verizon, whose lawsuit ultimately neutered the first go at neutrality. The only way to enact such a ban and have it stick would be to reclassify broadband as telecommunications infrastructure.

To that end, the Chair’s proposal will reportedly now include a request for public comment on whether or not to go ahead with this reclassification. It will no doubt result in a huge backlash from the cable industry, which has a lot to gain by allowing the status quo to remain the status quo.

While these last-minute add-ons to Wheeler’s proposal offer a faint glimmer of hope, it effectively means that he’s still hoping to get his version of neutrality rules passed and on the books now with the promise of someday finding a better solution.

FCC commissioners on both the Democratic and Republican side have urged Wheeler to delay this week’s vote. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel has stated she has “real concerns” about the Chair’s views on net neutrality and asked him to take more time to consider the public feedback on the issue. While fellow Commissioner Ajit Pai has said he doesn’t believe the commission currently has the statutory authority to regulate broadband in the way proposed by the Chair, and that any new neutrality rules will likely result in another doomed court battle.

The FCC has taken the very unusual step of opening up an e-mail address specifically for the public to comment on this issue — openinternet@fcc.gov — and has already received a flood of comments in opposition to Wheeler’s proposal, even though it hasn’t been made public yet.

If the commission votes to move forward with a proposal, it will make the document available to the public and open up a new comment period, giving everyone a second chance to voice their opinion on the matter.

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