Lawmaker Urges FCC To Treat Broadband As Utility, But Take 'Light Touch' With Regs

Longtime net neutrality supporter Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.) is adding her voice to calls for the Federal Communications Commission to reclassify broadband as a public utility.

The lawmaker says the FCC should prohibit broadband providers from blocking or throttling traffic, and from creating paid fast lanes. “Reclassifying broadband providers as 'telecommunications service' providers is the best and surest way to accomplish these objectives,” she writes today in a letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

In May, Wheeler proposed regulations that would prohibit providers from blocking or degrading content, but would allow them to charge companies more for faster delivery -- a practice known as paid prioritization.

Eshoo slammed that proposal, writing that those potential regulations “are not adequate to protect free speech, competition and the continued openness of the Internet.”

Like many neutrality advocates, Eshoo says that reclassifying broadband as a utility will put neutrality regulations on surer legal footing.

Earlier this year, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals all but told the FCC that it can't impose neutrality regulations without reclassifying broadband. In January, that court struck down the FCC's prior open Internet regulations -- passed in 2010 -- on the ground that they effectively subjected Internet service providers to the same kinds of “common carrier” rules that telephone companies must follow. The judges found this approach impermissible because broadband isn't currently considered a “telecommunications” service.

Advocates responded to that ruling by asking the FCC to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service, governed by Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

ISPs counter that many of Title II's provisions only make sense for telephone carriers, and not companies that offer Internet connectivity. But Eshoo says that the FCC can overcome those objections by using a “ 'light-touch' Title II approach.”

“The claims that Title II is heavy-handed are simply unfounded,” she writes. “The Commission already has the ability to tailor the law for market circumstances, deciding when and where to forbear from certain rules when those requirements are no longer necessary to protect the public.”

Earlier this month another lawmaker, Rep. Henry Waxman (D-Calif.), also urged the FCC to re-categorize broadband as a Title II service, and then use a different provision of the law -- Section 706 -- in order to impose rules banning paid prioritization.

How Wheeler intends to proceed remains unknown. He recently said that Title II remains an option. At the same time, Wheeler hasn't publicly backed away from his proposal to allow paid prioritization.

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