US FCC chair goes to war with telcos

Caroline Gabriel/Wireless Watch

Rethink

This article originally appeared in Rethink Research's Wireless Watch

US FCC chairman Tom Wheeler may have been put out when president Barack Obama pre-empted him last fall, and called for far stricter rules on net neutrality. But he is now pushing for an even stronger approach than even Obama seemed to envisage, which he described as the “strongest open internet protections ever proposed by the FCC”.

The plan would include reclassifying internet services providers under Title II of the Telecoms Act, which would effectively prevent them discriminating against the kind of traffic their networks are supporting, though Wheeler promises a modernized interpretation of Title II to preserve incentives to invest in broadband networks.

And as the wireless operators have feared, they would receive few concessions for the capacity challenges of their radio-based networks, and would lose much of the ‘special treatment’ they gained in the last neutrality rulings (overturned after legal challenges, and so opening the way to this new round of debates).

The FCC’s proposals, which were widely leaked last week and have now been revealed in full, cover wireline and wireless broadband networks. If the framework is enacted, it would ban throttling, blocking and paid prioritization by ISPs, and the FCC would gain powers to police interconnection agreements, like the one under which Netflix paid for more direct access to Comcast’s network. The FCC will vote on the proposals on February 26.

The main loophole is that the proposals do not block zero-rating, the practice of exempting some apps or types of traffic from counting towards a user’s monthly data allowance. The use of that technique could be extended to favor certain content providers, but the regulator decided the issue was not a significant one in the US – and it has been valuable for US firms like Facebook to reach poor communities in emerging economies.

But some critics believe providers will turn these zero rating deals effectively into the fast lanes which the FCC wants to close down. Even web father Tim Berners-Lee weighed in, saying there was a danger of “positive discrimination” and excessive power for internet providers.

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