FCC's Wheeler hints he's leaning toward Title II reclassification

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated during this week's Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas that he is leaning toward proposing net neutrality rules where broadband providers will be reclassified as utilities under Title II of the Communications Act, a plan that has been opposed by the largest telcos and a growing group of hardware and software vendors.

During his address, Wheeler said that the FCC will seek to hold broadband providers to a legal standard of what is "just and reasonable" in evaluating whether their practices violate rules on transparency, discrimination and paid prioritization.  

The commission is expected to vote on a new set of net neutrality rules Feb. 26. 

Under the FCC's original proposal, the FCC would have let ISPs strike deals on improved access with content companies and online services as long as they were "commercially reasonable." Wheeler said that as the FCC studied the issue, "it became obvious that 'commercially reasonable' could be interpreted as what is reasonable for the ISPs, not what's reasonable for consumers or innovators. And that's the wrong question and the wrong answer. Because the issue here is how do we make sure that consumers and innovators have access to open networks."

Wheeler added that the better way to analyze whether an ISP's behavior is "just and reasonable" is under Title II.

"We're going to propose rules that say that no blocking, no throttling, [no] paid prioritization, all that list of issues, and that there is a yardstick against which behavior should be measured. And that yardstick is 'just and reasonable,'" Wheeler told conference attendees.

Whatever direction the FCC takes with its final net neutrality ruling, Title II reclassification will draw a mixed response: Advocates of a strong net neutrality stance, including President Barack Obama, who appealed to the FCC in November to make this move, will embrace it, while ISPs will launch a series of legal challenges. Likewise, Title II reclassification would draw opposition from a Republican-controlled Congress.

Verizon's CFO Fran Shammo said during the UBS 42nd Annual Global Media and Communications Conference in December that if the FCC implements Title II, it is going to set off a long series of court challenges.

Meanwhile, a group of Republican leaders have reportedly proposed a new set of broadband provider regulations that they have called "Title X," which would give the FCC the authority to prevent service providers from blocking or slowing down consumer traffic to a specific website like Netflix or carving out special paid prioritization deals. However, the FCC would have to agree to not reclassify service providers under Title II.

For more:
- LA Times has this article

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