Commentary

FCC Commissioner Rosenworcel Condemns Online Fast Lanes

FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel is emerging as one of the leading critics of a plan to allow broadband providers to create online fast lanes.

“We cannot have a two-tiered Internet with fast lanes that speed the traffic of the privileged and leave the rest of us lagging behind,” she said this week at a Congressional forum on net neutrality.

She also cheered Chairman Tom Wheeler's recent statement that he's still considering reclassifying broadband as a utility. If so, broadband would then be covered by Title II of the Telecommunications Act, which would enable the FCC to impose the same types of common carrier regulations that require telephone companies to put through all calls. “As we look for a way forward, I am pleased that Chairman Wheeler has recently acknowledged that all options, including Title II, are on the table,” she said.

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A second Democratic commissioner, Mignon Clyburn, questioned whether it makes sense to impose less stringent rules on wireless than wireline broadband providers. She noted that lower-income households were especially likely to rely on mobile broadband, and questioned whether different neutrality rules would have an outsized impact on people who rely on wireless.

“I will be focusing my review on how different proposals will impact the consumer’s experience,” she said -- asking, for example, what the impact might be for a consumer whose mobile broadband would be the only available access to broadband.

Wheeler recently hinted that the agency might decide to apply neutrality regulations to wireline and wireless providers equally. When the FCC enacted open Internet regulations in 2010, the agency prohibited wired carriers from blocking or degrading sites and apps, and from engaging in unreasonable discrimination. But the regulations only prohibited wireless carriers from blocking or degrading competing apps. Those rules were invalidated by a federal appellate court earlier this year.

The opinions of Rosenworcel and Clyburn are significant, given that their votes are necessary for the FCC to move forward with new broadband regulations: The two Republican commissioners have already made clear that they don't believe any regulation is needed.

At the same time, the commissioners' statements this week don't necessarily signal that they'll break with Wheeler. In fact, earlier this year Rosenworcel also expressed reservations about Wheeler's plan to allow fast lanes, yet she still voted in favor of moving forward with the proposal.

Of course, since then, the plan has drawn a record-breaking 3.7 million comments, many of which urge the FCC to impose strong open Internet rules. Whether that's enough to sway the agency's decision still remains to be seen.

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