Under pressure, FCC revises fast lane plan

fcc net neutrality

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is revising his controversial Internet "fast lane" plan after facing mounting pressure from consumer advocates and Silicon Valley giants.

Under the new proposal, it will still be okay for Internet service providers to charge companies like Netflix (NFLX) and Amazon (AMZN) for faster access to customers. But the FCC will ensure broadband companies like Comcast (CMCSA) and Time Warner Cable (TWC) won't put non-paying companies in a "slow lane," according to an agency official.

Confused? You're not alone.

The new proposal employs some strange logic. There can't be a fast lane without a slow-by-comparison lane. And Wheeler's plan isn't much of a revision of his former proposal. It's a restatement of his initial idea -- with an emphasis that the FCC will put its foot down if broadband providers abuse their new powers.

In a Friday letter to two pro-net neutrality groups Wheeler sought to reassure open Internet advocates that he won't let broadband providers run amok.

"If someone acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have nots,' I will use every power at our disposal to stop it," Wheeler wrote. That includes labeling broadband Internet a utility, he said, which would give the FCC far more power to regulate the industry. Referred to as the "nuclear option," that's extremely unlikely to happen, given Congress' oversight of the FCC and the powerful telecommunications lobby's staunch opposition of increased regulation.

Related story: The FCC's Internet fast lane affects you

Diller on fair net speeds
Diller on fair net speeds

The FCC is playing a tough balancing act. Regulators are trying to keep President Obama's promise in 2007: Keep Internet access equal for all. Websites aren't allowed to pay bribes to broadband providers for better service to customers.

At the same time, the FCC is trying to make consumer protection rules that pass legal muster. Last time it tried to impose open Internet "net neutrality" rules, the FCC got knocked down by a federal appeals court. Internet service providers argued they had a right to charge for faster service, and they successfully challenged the FCC's cited authority.

These new, revised draft rules don't please anybody. Broadband providers would likely challenge any attempt by the FCC to play referee on their turf. And net neutrality supporters won't be satisfied if broadband companies can offer faster connection speeds to one website -- and not another.

"I still have serious concerns about any proposal that would allow for pay-to-play deals, which are antithetical to net neutrality‎," said U.S. Sen. Al Franken, D-Minn., who calls net neutrality "the free speech issue of our time."

Related story: Netflix's connection deal with Comcast is paying off

The FCC has declined to speak publicly about the revised proposal yet. An agency official confirmed the new draft rules, but they will not be released until the commission votes on them this Thursday.

Wheeler first unveiled his "fast lane" priority access proposal in late April. He and the FCC faced a major backlash from tech companies, including Amazon, Google (GOOG) and Microsoft (MSFT), who argue that paid priority deals provide an open door to discriminate against certain websites.

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