In the face of widespread protests, has the head of the Federal Communications Commission changed his mind about Internet fast lanes? A new report indicates that Chairman Tom Wheeler is revising the basic concept behind his proposal.
According to a story in Sunday's Wall Street Journal, a revised proposal will be circulated as early as Monday. It is intended to address complaints about his ideas for a "fast lane" that Internet providers could offer to content providers, for a fee.
At a meeting this Thursday, the FCC is expected to take up Wheeler's proposal. The meeting will also consider Net-neutrality proposals presented by the Mozilla Foundation and Columbia Law Professor Tim Wu, who actually first came up with the term "Net neutrality."
A letter protesting the fast-lane idea, with more than 100 companies signing, has been presented to the FCC. It includes a number of the most prominent Net companies, including Google, Microsoft and Netflix. More than 100 other groups have also presented petitions, made phone calls or held demonstrations against the fast-lane concept. In addition, three of the five FCC commissioners have expressed reservations.
The revised proposal, according to the Journal, will still include fast lanes, but will include a specification that the FCC will make sure this prioritization does not put companies that don't pay extra at a disadvantage.
But there are two revisions Wheeler is reportedly making that could change the conversation. One is a request for feedback on whether fast lanes, or "paid prioritization," should be prohibited entirely. The other is whether Internet service should be reclassified as a "common carrier," which would give the FCC a much broader range of regulatory powers.
Many of those protesting the fast lane concept have urged the FCC to reclassify, but Net providers are opposed.
QoS and Volume
Matt Davis, an analyst with industry research firm IDC, told us that his reading of Wheeler's April 29 posting that first mentioned fast lane was more of a "preview" of the proposal, in which the chairman was opening the discussion about a possible two-tiered system.
Davis noted that the court decisions that propelled this discussion were clear about the limitations to the FCC's power unless it did reclassify Net providers. He said that it appears the FCC may need legislation to undertake reclassification, although there are some observers who say the agency can do this by themselves.
Rather than "fast lane," Davis said the actual Wheeler concept might result in options for various Quality of Service and volume (download capacity). "What about prioritization for, say, services" over the Net, he asked, as one example of a service that might require specialized treatment.
He said the most likely outcome was that the FCC would say "we're going to go ahead [with the so-called fast lane concept], get back comments, and then deal [with violations] on a case-by-case basis."