FCC Said to Signal It’s Heeding Obama’s Call for Open-Web Rules

WASHINGTON (Bloomberg News/TNS) -

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission is signaling that it intends to adopt President Barack Obama’s net-neutrality proposal when the independent agency votes on rules next month.

FCC officials working on the issue under Chairman Tom Wheeler are asking questions they would only ask if they were taking the direction Obama is seeking, such as how to regulate wireless service, said one person involved in discussions with the agency.

Obama in November called for “the strongest possible rules” to regulate internet service, including a ban on so-called fast lanes. In doing so, he joined the ranks of internet startups, public-interest groups and more than 105,000 people who signed a petition to the White House calling for an open-internet policy. The rules would ensure service providers treat web traffic equally — a concept known as net neutrality.

The president’s intervention appears to be driving policy deliberations on net neutrality, Comcast Corp. said in documents filed in recent weeks with the FCC. The cable company, which opposes the proposal and is one of the nation’s largest high-speed-internet providers, suggested steps to soften the blow.

Such an acknowledgment “gives you strong reason to believe it’s headed that way,” said Gene Kimmelman, President of the Washington-based policy group Public Knowledge, who supports Obama’s utility-style rules. “I’m optimistic.”

The FCC deliberations follow a year of debate since a court rejected the agency’s rules to guarantee web traffic is treated equally by internet-service providers led by Comcast, AT&T Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc. In May, Wheeler proposed allowing the fast lanes Obama opposes, and he has backed using less-sweeping authority than the president called for.

Wheeler was noncommittal after Obama issued his statement favoring net neutrality, saying the independent agency would incorporate the president’s view into the record. The FCC is to vote Feb. 26 on rules that Wheeler, a Democrat, will propose to fellow commissioners. He needs three votes from the five-member commission, where Democrats hold the majority.

“The conventional wisdom appears to be that the president had some influence, for better or worse, depending on your perspective,” said Fred Campbell, a former Republican FCC official who opposes Obama’s plan as a damper to investment.

Internet-service providers and Republican allies in Congress say the web has thrived with light regulation, and that Obama’s proposed utility-style rules aren’t needed and may lead to price regulation. Web companies including startups and video provider Netflix Inc. say rules are needed to make sure traffic isn’t blocked or slowed on its way to consumers. They’re backed by congressional Democrats.

Comcast, the largest U.S. cable provider, which has proposed buying No. 2 Time Warner Cable Inc., said in the Dec. 24 filing that it opposes Obama’s plan to subject internet service to a part of the communications law known as Title II, written last century to regulate phone service over copper wires.