Lawmaker Slams Wheeler's Fast-Lane Proposal

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) says he is “deeply disappointed” that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is endorsing online “fast lanes” for companies willing to pay extra fees to Internet service providers.

“Pay-to-play arrangements are inherently discriminatory and anticompetitive, and therefore should be prohibited as a matter of public policy,” Franken says in a letter sent to Wheeler today. “They increase costs for consumers and give ISPs a disincentive to improve their broadband networks.”

Franken adds he would like to see the FCC aim to “sustain competition and consumer benefits” instead of creating new “unnecessary tolls for businesses and consumers.”

“The Internet was developed at taxpayers' expense to benefit the public interest. It belongs to all of us,” he writes.

Franken's letter comes several days after Wheeler circulated a proposal to allow broadband providers to charge companies like Netflix extra fees to ensure smooth delivery of their content. That fast-lane treatment will almost certainly be at the expense of other companies that don't pay extra for that type of service.

Many consumer advocates have condemned the proposal, arguing that it will result in the end of the open Internet. Critics say that allowing pay-for-play arrangements will enable Internet service providers to discriminate against competitors -- like Aereo and Hulu. Opponents also say Wheeler's proposal will make it harder for small companies, nonprofits, and startups to reach consumers online.

At the same time, if the FCC rejects Wheeler's proposal and decides to move in the opposite direction -- that is, to prohibit pay-for-play agreements -- the agency probably will first have to reclassify broadband as a “telecommunications” service. Currently, the FCC considers broadband an “information” service, which isn't subject to common carrier regulations.

Many advocates are urging the FCC to simply reclassify broadband and then impose the same types of common carrier rules that have long prohibited telephone companies from discriminating when putting through calls. Not surprisingly, cable companies and telecoms are opposed to the idea. Today, the cable industry's top lobbyist, former FCC Chairman Michael Powell, condemned the notion that broadband providers should be subject to the same regulations as telephone companies, according to The New York Times. “Because the Internet is not regulated as a public utility, it grows and thrives, watered by private capital and a light regulatory touch,” he reportedly said at an industry conference.

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