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FCC Proposal Would Regulate Internet Like A Public Utility


Today the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission announced a proposal to regulate the Internet as a public utility. The goal, says Chairman Tom Wheeler, is to ensure network neutrality. That's the idea that all traffic on the Internet, whether it's from Netflix or from Joe's Pizza, is treated equally. NPR's Laura Sydell spoke to supporters and opponents of the plan.

LAURA SYDELL, BYLINE: Network neutrality is a pretty dull term. Even the guy who coined it agrees.

TIM WU: Oh, God. I know. I know.

SYDELL: Tim Wu, a law professor at Columbia University, came up with this eye-glazing concept over a decade ago. I'll let him explain it.

WU: Net neutrality is a rule that says that the companies that carry the Internet have to carry stuff more or less equally. They can't block. Kickstarter is a much smaller company than, let's say Google, but Kickstarter feels pretty good. And that has been the power of net neutrality. It's an equalizing force between small and big business.

SYDELL: Wu says broadband providers like Comcast and AT&T want to be able to make deals with companies like Google-YouTube where those companies would pay providers extra to get to consumers faster than their competitors - say, Vimeo. The FCC's been trying to prevent broadband companies from doing this and from slowing traffic from their competitors. But the commission's efforts have been blocked in court. That's why the FCC has turned to an equally dull term, Title II.

WU: Title II is impossible - impossible.

SYDELL: Title II is the statute that's been used to regulate utilities, specifically telephone service. That would give the FCC a lot more power to enforce network neutrality and ensure everyone from small companies to everyday users enjoys equal access. But critics say this is too much power. Robert Litan, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, says, for example, under Title II, the Commission can cap how much you can be charged for phone service.

ROBERT LITAN: And when you're a company having to operate under the threat that your service is going to be regulated, you are going to have much less incentive to invest in upgrading of broadband.

SYDELL: The new proposal from FCC Chairman Wheeler specifically states that the commission will not use Title II to regulate prices for Internet service. But Litan says providers worry that could change.

LITAN: They are potentially living under the threat that a future FCC could regulate their prices, just like we did for AT&T when it was a monopoly.

SYDELL: Other critics of the chairman's proposal say that it might not actually assure a truly open playing field for some companies. Doug Brake is a policy analyst with the Information Technology and Innovation Foundation. He points to private networks that Wall Street traders have built to ensure super high speeds to do split-second trading. Even some big video game companies, like Riot Games, are planning their own private networks to ensure consumers can play without any lag time. Brake says small companies can't afford to do that.

DOUG BRAKE: If you're a small gaming company and you only have so much of a user base, you'd much rather be paying to scale up that privatization to get quality of service assurances for your gaming packets - right? - rather than having to build your own fiber network.

SYDELL: One thing that Brake, Litan, and Wu all agree on is that after Chairman Wheeler formally presents his proposal to the full FCC tomorrow, and even if the commission approves it later this month, the battle around network neutrality isn't over. A new round of lawsuits will almost certainly begin. Laura Sydell, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Laura Sydell fell in love with the intimate storytelling qualities of radio, which combined her passion for theatre and writing with her addiction to news. Over her career she has covered politics, arts, media, religion, and entrepreneurship. Currently Sydell is the Digital Culture Correspondent for NPR's All Things Considered, Morning Edition, Weekend Edition, and