WASHINGTON, May 20 (UPI) -- FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler defended his approach to new rules meant to protect the openness of the Internet against a skeptical congressional committee Tuesday, promising to block the so-called "fast lines" that have consumer advocates up in arms.
Wheeler said he believed paid prioritization -- allowing Internet service providers to demand content providers pay for faster service, like Comcast has tried to do with Netflix -- would not be "commercially reasonable" under proposed rules and could therefore be blocked.
"Once the consumer buys access to the Internet, they are buying access to the full Internet," Wheeler told the House Committee on Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology Tuesday.
"When I buy Internet access, I am buying the full pipe," he said. "I am buying access to everything that's out there."
"If somebody comes along and says, 'Oh no, you can't get this unless you pay more,' that's unreasonable and should be banned. If someone says to a content provider, 'You can't get on unless you pay more,' that's unreasonable."
The FCC voted last week to formally introduce rules that would replace those struck down by a federal court in January reestablishing its authority over broadband providers. The FCC has opened a 60-day comment period and 40-day reply period, exploring both rules that would leave the door open for paid prioritization deals, pending the FCC's approval under the "commercially reasonable" test, and the more drastic option of reclassification of the Internet as a public utility, which would grant the FCC much broader regulatory authority.
Advocates for net neutrality have condemned the draft rules, saying that they allow paid prioritization that could lead to ISPs blocking consumer access to content at will. Instead, net neutrality advocates have urged the FCC to reclassify the Internet from Title I of the Communications Act of 1934, to Title II, where it would be called a "common carrier" and be treated with the same level of importance as access to water, electricity, and standard telephone access.
"While the details of implementation can change, the general concepts embodied in Title II have stuck around so long because they have proven to be valuable," Michael Weinberg, vice president of Public Knowledge, told the Daily Dot.
Meanwhile, ISPs say classifying the Internet as a public utility will "put potholes on the Internet" by placing it at the mercy of political whim like "crumbling" roads, bridges or water mains.
"Today's Internet doesn't suffer these kinds of chronic problems because broadband isn't regulated like a public utility," the National Cable & Telecommunications Association said in a statement. "It grows and thrives through private investment and a light regulatory touch."
At Tuesday's panel, lawmakers squeezed Wheeler from both sides, with Democrats expressing anxiety that the proposed rules would not go far enough to keep the Internet "open, free and accessible," while Republicans said the rules would stifle the environment of innovation.
"The Internet has indeed flourished under the current light-touch regulatory scheme," said full committee Chairman Fred Upton, R-Mich., who pointed out that the rules that would govern the Internet under reclassification were written long before the Internet became widely used.
Rep. Joe Barton, R-Texas, argued in favor of "price by volume," saying that broadband providers should be able to set marketplace transactions for services provided at different levels. He compared it to purchasing a ticket on an airplane, but not being able to fill the rest of the seats without paying additionally for them too.
"Broadband providers have spent billions and billions of dollars and have networked this country," he said. "They're going to provide an open Internet, but they may want to provide it based on volume for a fee."
But Wheeler said it wasn't a simple matter of allowing consumers and content providers to pay for access to enhanced services.
"If you offer fast lanes for some, you're going to degrade service for others," he said. "That's what's at the heart of what we're taking about."