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FCC Chairman Proposes Classifying The Internet As A Public Utility


The Federal Communications Commission is proposing rules that would treat high-speed Internet access more like a public utility. The change in regulations that would make that happen has got big phone and cable companies up in arms. NPR's Joel Rose reports.

JOEL ROSE, BYLINE: Not many issues before the FCC generate as much passion as this one.

TOM WHEELER: Did I pay attention to the fact that there were 4 million comments filed? Of course, that's a record.

ROSE: Tom Wheeler is the chairman of the FCC, and he is doing what approximately 3 million people who wrote to the commission hoped he would - proposing strong rules to protect net neutrality. That's the idea that big phone and cable companies shouldn't be allowed to block or slow data from their competitors or charge more for faster access to consumers.

WHEELER: What we're saying is if it harms consumers, if it harms competition, if it harms innovation, that won't be allowed.

ROSE: The FCC has tried to impose such rules twice before, but they've been struck down. A little more than a year ago, a court said the commission did not have the legal authority to enforce its net neutrality rules because of the way it was defining the Internet. For years, the commission has classified the Internet as an information service, which is lightly regulated. So Wheeler is proposing to reclassify the Internet as a telecommunication service, like the old-fashioned telephone, and regulate it under a section of the Communications Act known as Title II.

WHEELER: One of the things that the opponents of net neutrality keep pointing to is saying, oh, Title II was developed in the 1930s for a monopoly environment. And that's a great soundbite. But it's totally misleading as to what we're doing here. We are modernizing the basic vehicle of Title II to deal with the realities in the 21st century.

ROSE: In the last century, the FCC used to Title II to cap what phone companies could charge you. Wheeler says that will not happen when Title II is applied to broadband. He says the FCC won't try to impose any taxes on the Internet either.

WHEELER: There's, like, 38 different sections of Title II. And what we're doing is forbearing, which means we are not using the vast majority of those - approximately 30 of those. We're just going to focus on the things that are relevant.

ROSE: The proposed rules were hailed as a victory by public interest groups. Companies that depend on the Internet to reach their customers sound optimistic as well. Michael Beckerman is CEO of the Internet Association, whose members include Google, Amazon and Netflix.

MICHAEL BECKERMAN: The broad strokes look good. We want to make sure that the end experience for users and the protections for Internet companies, large and small, are protected. And it looks like they're hitting the key points in a very light-touch way. And I think that's really positive.

ROSE: The reaction from the big phone and cable companies was not so positive. They argue that utility-style regulation will hurt investment. Berin Szoka is the president of TechFreedom, a pro-market think tank in Washington. He says the FCC is overstepping its authority by trying to rewrite Title II.

BERIN SZOKA: If you really care about net neutrality and you want to see the FCC on sound, legal footing, you need legislation. The FCC is simply heading for a third loss in court. And Congress is just going to have to decide this issue in two or three years' time instead of now.

ROSE: Cable and phone companies seemed a lot happier with the rules Chairman Wheeler initially proposed last year, which were much more modest and, critics argued, much more open to abuse by broadband providers. Then Wheeler got an earful from the public, and even the president voiced his support for Title II. But Wheeler insists he came to the final decision on his own and that it came down in part to practical concerns.

WHEELER: The big dogs have told us that they're going to sue. We're writing this in the anticipation that we know we're going to be seeing this in court.

ROSE: Wheeler is expected to share the proposal with his fellow commissioners today. They'll debate it and vote on it by the end of the month. Joel Rose, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Joel Rose is a correspondent on NPR's National Desk. He covers immigration and breaking news.