Commentary

U.S. Mayors Oppose Wheeler's Pay-For-Play Broadband Proposal

The U.S. Conference of Mayors has joined the growing number of opponents to Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler's proposal for Internet fast lanes.

This week, the mayors of New York, San Francisco and more than a dozen other large cities unanimously approved a resolution urging the FCC to support open Internet principles. The resolution specifically condemns Wheeler's recent pay-for-play proposal, which would allow broadband providers to charge content companies extra fees for speedy delivery.

“All data on the Internet should be treated equally, not discriminating or charging differentially by user, content, site, platform, application, type of attached equipment, and modes of communication,” the resolution reads. “Innovation relies on a free and open Internet that does not allow individual arrangements for priority treatment over broadband Internet access service.”

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In 2010, the FCC passed rules that prohibited wireline providers from blocking content or engaging in discrimination. But an appellate court struck down those regulations in January. The move appears to have left broadband carriers free to censor content at will, slow down traffic by competitors, or engage in other questionable activities.

The FCC is currently trying to craft new neutrality rules that will hold up in court. To that end, the agency recently voted to consider a proposal to prohibit Internet service providers from blocking content, but allow them to engage in “commercially reasonable” paid prioritization agreements.

Wheeler says that those rules will go a long way toward protecting open Internet principles.

But critics -- including large companies like Google, venture investors and digital rights organizations -- say that allowing paid prioritization deals would prove disastrous for startups, nonprofits and others that can't afford to pay extra tolls for speedy delivery.

As a practical matter, the recent court decision makes clear that the FCC can't ban pay-for-play deals, unless it first reclassifies broadband as a telecommunications service. Doing so would subject ISPs to the same common carrier regulations that telephone companies must follow.

Some neutrality proponents -- though not the mayors -- are urging the FCC to pursue reclassification. But nearly everyone acknowledges that doing so would prove politically challenging. Already a Republican House member has introduced a bill that would ban the FCC from reclassifying broadband access.

The FCC will accept public comments on the proposed regulations through Sept. 15.

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