FCC Chief Vows No Internet 'Slow Lanes'

Tom Wheeler defends his proposed net-neutrality rules.

Thomas Wheeler testifies in his confirmation hearing to become Federal Communications Commission chairman, before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee on June 18, 2013 in Washington, DC. Wheeler testified that he supports a spectrum auction but likened it to a Rubik's cube, with many different facets that must be aligned perfectly in order to be completed. (National Journal)

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is trying to ease fears that he is caving on net neutrality.

In a blog post Tuesday, Tom Wheeler said his proposed rules would put the FCC "on track to have tough, enforceable Open Internet rules on the books in an expeditious manner, ending a decade of uncertainty and litigation."

Wheeler has come under fire from liberal lawmakers and consumer advocacy groups after floating new rules that would allow Internet service providers to charge websites for faster service as long as the arrangements are "commercially reasonable." Critics argue that allowing "fast lanes" would tilt the Internet in favor of the largest corporations and stifle new Internet start-ups.

Democratic Sen. Al Franken said Tuesday that allowing pay-for-priority deals would "destroy" the open Internet.

But Wheeler vowed that under his rules, it "won't be possible for an Internet provider to degrade the service available to all."

He said the debate over "fast lanes" misses the point. His rules would ensure that the Internet is "sufficiently robust" for consumers to access whatever content and applications they want, he said.

"Degrading service in order to create a new 'fast lane' would be shut down," Wheeler said.

The statement appears to indicate that Wheeler's proposal would bar ISPs from targeting any websites for "slow lanes." The FCC would allow ISPs to speed up particular websites only if the provider is not purposefully slowing down overall service.

Wheeler said that Internet providers would not be able to speed up affiliated content. So it would be illegal for an ISP to put its own sports network in a fast lane. Anything that curbs the "free exercise of speech and civic engagement" would also be banned, he said.

"In other words, the Internet will remain an open pathway," he said.

"If broadband providers would seek to use the commercially reasonable test as justification of activities in which users can't effectively use that pathway, or the capabilities of it are degraded, I suggest they save their breath since such conduct would be a violation of the Open Internet rules we propose. If anyone acts to degrade the service for all for the benefit of a few, I intend to use every available power to stop it."

Wheeler is trying to rewrite the rules in a way that will hold up in court. The D.C. Circuit struck down the old, stronger rules in January.

Liberal advocacy groups are pressuring the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet as a Title II "telecommunications service," which the agency has broad authority to regulate. That move would allow the FCC to reinstate stronger rules, but would prompt a swift backlash from Republicans and business groups.

Wheeler said he "won't hesitate" to use the Title II option if his proposal turns out to be insufficient.

"If we get to a situation where arrival of the 'next Google' or the 'next Amazon' is being delayed or deterred, we will act as necessary using the full panoply of our authority," he said. "Just because I believe strongly that following the court's roadmap will enable us to have rules protecting an Open Internet more quickly, does not mean I will hesitate to use Title II if warranted."

Netflix CEO Reed Hastings has urged Wheeler to expand the net neutrality rules to ensure that websites can connect directly to ISPs' networks for free. Netflix has had to pay Comcast and, most recently, Verizon for interconnection deals to improve video quality. Even the old rules would not have prohibited the deals because they involve the way networks connect to each other, as opposed to how traffic flows into subscribers' homes.

Wheeler said that while the issue is outside of his net-neutrality proposal, he will ask for comments on how the FCC should regulate interconnection deals.