FCC To Propose New “Hybrid” Approach To Net Neutrality

fccprotestThe FCC proposed their new, “fast lane” net neutrality rule back in May. Since then pretty much everyone — from Congress to 3 million regular people, to members of the FCC — has objected in one way or another. And now it looks like FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is going to revise the plan.

The Wall Street Journal reports that sources in the know say that Wheeler is close to settling on a “hybrid” proposal.

The new stab at net neutrality would not flat-out reclassify broadband service as a common carrier under Title II, as most consumer advocates have asked for.

Instead, the new plan would split broadband into two service categories. One would cover retail broadband, and be defined as the internet access services that consumers buy. The other would cover “back-end” broadband, as the WSJ puts it, “in which broadband providers serve as the conduit for websites to distribute content.”

That back-end service would then be classified as a common carrier, while retail broadband would not.

If that proposal were to be adopted, that would mean that internet traffic would be regulated in two different ways depending on how far away from you, the end user, it is. Traffic moving from its origination point on some server somewhere, through transit ISPs, would be treated under common carrier rules. Traffic coming through the last mile of cable, into your house, would not be.

That would theoretically mostly prevent broadband providers from engaging in fast lane/slow lane behavior and throttling or blocking content — but only in the back-end. It’s still a golden opportunity for retail ISPs (the Comcasts and Verizons of the world) to make things difficult for the consumers who actually receive that content.

As the WSJ puts it, the proposal would “leave the door open for broadband providers to offer specialized services for, say, videogamers or online video providers, which require a particularly large amount of bandwidth. The proposal would also allow the commission to explore usage-based pricing at some point, in which consumers are charged based on how much data they use and companies are able to subsidize traffic to their websites or applications.”

Want to spend all your evenings in League of Legends? You’ll want the Gamer High Score Plus package, which actually lets you connect to that without lag for only an extra $19.99 per month. Really into watching House of Cards in 4K on your shiny new ultra-HD TV every night? You’ll need the Feature Film Fan bundle for that.

The point of a hybrid plan is to try to appease all corners, but so far this seems likely to be a flop on that front. Consumer advocacy groups see all the potential pitfalls that remain for end users, and aren’t pleased.

Free Press president and CEO Craig Aaron, taking full advantage of today’s holiday, said in a statement, “This Frankenstein proposal is no treat for Internet users, and they shouldn’t be tricked. No matter how you dress it up, any rules that don’t clearly restore the agency’s authority and prevent specialized fast lanes and paid prioritization aren’t real Net Neutrality.”

Nor are big businesses enthralled with this approach. Verizon has strongly suggested that they will once again take the FCC to court over any attempt to reclassify broadband services, saying they do not think a reclassification approach would “withstand judicial review.” And an industry official told that WSJ that while hybrid plans might be seen as fractionally more tolerable, they would almost certainly meet the same legal challenges from ISPs as a full attempt at using Title II would.

Rumor has it the FCC wants net neutrality done with before the end of the year, which gives them two months to get through any new proposal. They are in an unenviable position; they absolutely cannot make everyone happy. But the more they try, the more they seem to fail to make anyone happy.

FCC ‘Net Neutrality’ Plan Calls for More Power Over Broadband [Wall Street Journal]