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FCC Chairman's Proposal Will Radically Change The Rules Of The Internet

The FCC is making news again today as Chairman Wheeler submitted a draft that, if approved by the FCC commissioners on February 26, will revolutionize the Internet in the United States.

The Open Internet

The first proposal of this draft is the "Open Internet." This proposal calls for the removal of certain Internet limitations placed on users by ISPs. This proposal would make it illegal for ISPs to limit or otherwise interfere with the Internet based on content. In other words, it is no longer legal for ISPs to throttle an application like Netflix to reduce bandwidth on the ISP's network. It also forbids ISPs to monitor and spy on the Internet use of their customers.

ISPs will no longer be permitted to ask for paid prioritization from web-based services such as Netflix. One application cannot be favored to run faster, and because companies can't pay those fees, ISPs cannot reduce or block user access to this service. (No fast lanes.)

(Image credit: Gigi Sohn, Special Counsel for External Affairs, FCC)

This proposal is being made to help protect against ISPs abusing their control over the Internet. Additionally, it's designed to promote growth and competition between ISPs, which will need to strengthen and innovate their networks in some areas to handle the additional traffic and bandwidth. ISPs also lose the ability to reduce user bandwidth for any reason, and they will lose the ability to block content or applications at their own discretion.

As a result of outlawing Internet throttling and unjust blocking of websites, greater transparency is deemed mandatory by the FCC to ensure that these new regulations are being followed.

To justify the FCC's legal right to make these changes, Chairman Wheeler used two articles of legislation, Title II of the Communications Act and Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996. These two laws mandate open, unrestricted use of the Internet.

Recently, Republicans in Congress have made attempts to limit the power that Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act gave the FCC to make laws and regulations about the Internet. In response, Chairman Wheeler cited the case of Verizon Communications Inc vs. the FCC (which took place last year) in his draft to further justify its use.

Broadband As A Telecommunications Service

In addition to justifying the open Internet proposal, Title II of the Communications Act also calls for the reclassification of "broadband Internet access service" as a telecommunications service. This puts the responsibility of providing Internet service to the various city and state governments (as well as ostensibly the federal government) and away from a retail position under control of cable, phone, and wireless providers.

This reclassification of broadband as a telecommunications service will effectively undermine state laws which have been set up in an effort to prevent municipal broadband networks from emerging. Following the vote, this would allow municipalities to follow in the footsteps of Wilson, North Carolina; Chattanooga, Tennessee; and Cedar Falls, Iowa, all of which currently rank as having the fastest Internet in the United States after establishing their own municipal broadband networks.

Reasonable Network Management

The draft allows for management of the network on several levels. Understanding that innovation will require updating existing networks, this provision of the draft will excuse ISPs from minor delays or outages of service. Only a limited number of service outages will be tolerated, however, and ISPs cannot use these outages as an excuse to limit data usage of customers who purchase unlimited data plans.

Services such as Skype and other VoIP applications are no longer classified as "broadband Internet access" services. These services cannot undermine the performance of services which are classified as being "broadband Internet access," and as such are still open to being throttled if other services running on the network require additional bandwidth. It is mandatory for ISPs to be transparent and disclose details when throttling these services.

The FCC will not be responsible for hearing complaints from users and ISPs about regulations and usage of the Internet and will be given the authority to enforce action to resolve these complaints only if deemed necessary.

Will The Vote Pass?

The draft has now been circulated and is due to be voted on at the end of the month. With so many critical changes in the draft, extreme opposition should be expected from ISPs and members of the government who are against the FCC's plan.

When the FCC voted to approve the definition change of Broadband last week, many were skeptical about the actions that ISPs would take in response, speculating that they would simply drop "broadband" from their advertisements to avoid increasing bandwidth. This new draft, if passed, will push for action and likely result in the adoption of the new standard.

If Wheeler's proposal passes, the Internet will undergo a metamorphosis over the coming years, as municipal networks are developed and ISPs race to improve their networks or risk being replaced. Either way, it could mean major improvements in Internet access and speeds for U.S. citizens. Internet bandwidth should increase, and the price for that bandwidth should drop. It could, then, be a nightmare for ISPs, as they could see their profit margins drop with the cost of developing better networks.

Expect to see more news from the FCC throughout the coming months as the battle for adoption of this proposal moves forward.

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