NEW YORK (TheStreet) -- The Internet is careening on a path toward a two-tiered network, a "fast-lane" for a handful of wealthy companies and a slow lane for the rest of us, said Craig Aaron, president of the advocacy group Free Press.
Aaron's dire forecast contrasted with an impassioned Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler who told a packed Washington, D.C. hearing room Thursday that he would work to guarantee that the Internet "remains free and open," the siren call of those who advocate for "net neutrality." The five-member FCC approved Wheeler's proposal to re-write rules to oversee Internet connectivity.
Wheeler's proposed rules are meant to balance calls for equal access to the Web with the demands of companies that have spend billions of dollars to build broadband networks. Nonetheless, the chairman's proposal would allow broadband providers such as Comcast (CMCSA), the country's largest cable-TV operator, Verizon (V) and AT&T (T) to sell preferential services to those willing to pay for them. Wheeler and Democrat Commissioner Mignon Clyburn voted in favor of the resolution while the two Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly voted against.
Democrat Jessica Rosenworcel called for a delay in the entire process, saying she would prefer to explore rules that would regulate the Internet as a utility. Rosenworcel voted to concur.
But in the hearing room, packed with some of the Netroots activists who had camped outside of the FCC's Washington headquarters in anticipation of the hearing, doubts about the agency's resolve ran high. Aaron was among them.
"The rules as drafted won't accomplish the goals that the chairman said that he's trying to accomplish," Aaron said. "The path that the agency is moving forward with would still leave us open to a two-tiered Internet. Until the reality of the text matches the rhetoric, I can't say I'm happy."
The agency's decision to rewrite rules governing Internet connectivity comes in response to a January court remand of existing regulations. Washington, D.C.'s Court of Appeals overturned parts of the FCC's 2010 Open Internet order, forcing the agency to decide whether to attempt a re-write or allow the companies that own broadband networks to set the rules.
Wheeler did appear to address comments made Wednesday by Comcast Executive Vice-President David Cohen who asserted at an investor forum in New York that when it comes to charging different amounts of money for different levels of Internet connectivity, the law allows it.
"Whatever it is, a 'fast lane,' 'paid prioritization,' whatever you want to call it, it has been completely legal for 15 or 20 years," Cohen said at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit in New York. "Whatever it is, we are allowed to do it."
Wheeler countered Cohen's declaration, exclaiming that nothing in the FCC's current rules allows for "paid prioritization." Later, at a press conference, Wheeler did state that Comcast's interconnection agreement signed with Netflix (NFLX) in February was an issue of "peering," a question of routing traffic rather than "paid prioritization," which could effect the end-user.
"I am encouraged by the fact that the chairman saw what David Cohen said yesterday as a genuine threat to a free and open Internet," Aaron added. "I hope that he will recognize that if he wants that to stop from happening, he's going to need stronger legal authority than what he needs now."
Republican commissioners Paj and O'Reilly called for the FCC to allow broadband providers such as Comcast, Verizon and AT&T to set the rules for Internet usage and connectivity, a concept Wheeler said he rejected.
-- Written by Leon Lazaroff in New York
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