The chairman of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission has undersold the amount of intrusive new regulations his net neutrality proposal will bring to the Internet and to broadband providers, a Republican commissioner said Tuesday.
The net neutrality proposal from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler would bring "adverse consequences to entire Internet economy," Commissioner Ajit Pai said during a press conference. "The imposition of these heavy-handed ... regulations is going to present onerous burdens on everybody, across the entire landscape."
The proposal would allow the FCC to define just and reasonable prices for broadband service and to impose in the future common-carrier telecom regulations, like requiring providers to share their networks with competitors, the commissioner said.
Pai called on Wheeler to release the 332-page document containing the proposed rules before the FCC is scheduled to vote on them Feb. 26. Wheeler has declined Republican requests to release the document, saying he plans to allow commissioners to discuss the draft rules in private until then, as has happened in past FCC rule-making proceedings.
Wheeler's release of the draft proposal to fellow commissioners three weeks before a vote is "in accordance with long-standing FCC process," and the chairman will release it after the vote, FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said. "We are confident the other commissioners will give the proposal an exhaustive review."
The public should have the right to see the far-reaching proposal in the weeks leading up to the vote, Pai countered. "Transparency is our friend here," he added.
Asked if he could release the document on his own, Pai said FCC rules prevent him from doing so.
Wheeler's plan would reclassify broadband from a lightly regulated information service to a more regulated telecommunications service, including some of the common-carrier regulations faced by traditional telecom carriers. The FCC would forbear from applying several common-carrier regulations under Title II of the Telecommunications Act, Wheeler has said.
But the proposal has the FCC forbearing from many common-carrier rules only "at this time," said Pai, who doesn't support any new net neutrality rules, even as some Republicans and broadband providers have signed on to lighter regulations. Down the road, the FCC could vote to require broadband providers to share their networks, to contribute fees to the agency's Universal Service Fund and could give the agency authority over providers' entry into and exit from local markets, he said.
"The president's plan makes clear that more utility-style regulation is coming," Pai said. "Expect regulation to ratchet up, and forbearance to fade."
The plan would also regulate how and where broadband providers establish interconnection points on the backbone of the Internet and how they route traffic, Pai said. The proposal would allow class-action lawsuits to challenge broadband providers' management of their networks, a "gift to trial lawyers," he added.
"President Obama's plan gives the FCC broad and unprecedented discretion to micromanage the Internet," Pai said. "This plan gives a Washington bureaucracy a blank check to decide how Internet service providers deploy and manage their networks."
Finally, the proposal would allow the FCC to set broadband rates by determining when providers are charging unjust and unreasonable prices, Pai said.
Public Knowledge, a digital rights group that supports Title II rules, downplayed Pai's concerns. Pai's assertion that the proposal would give the FCC broad, utility-style rate-setting authority "is bogus," said Harold Feld, Public Knowledge's senior vice president.
The proposed rules would give the FCC some authority to protect consumers against dramatic price hikes, Feld said. "If Comcast were to double its price, the FCC could say, 'that's crazy, come up with something that passes the laugh test,'" he added.
Pai, never referred to the proposal as Wheeler's but instead repeatedly called it Obama's during the 45-minute press conference. In November, Obama called on the FCC to craft net neutrality rules that would regulate broadband like a public utility, and Pai echoed concerns from other Republicans that the president put "undue influence" on the independent agency.
But Wheeler, early last year, had originally proposed net neutrality rules that did not reclassify broadband under Title II. "It is very clear that outside political influences determined the trajectory of where the FCC is going," Pai said. "It is only now after we've received this 332-page document that it becomes clear that the president's plan to regulate the Internet is going to be the FCC's plan."
But U.S. presidential administrations have repeatedly weighed in on FCC proceedings in recent years, Public Knowledge's Feld said.
"The argument that, somehow, the agency has been compromised or the process has been compromised is simply not true," Feld said.
Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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