FCC, Inundated by Net Neutrality Comments, Extends Response Deadline

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By Bryce Baschuk  

July 15 — The Federal Communications Commission agreed to extend its net neutrality comment deadline until midnight on July 18 amid an influx of submissions that choked the agency's networks.

The three-day extension was granted July 15 after citizens flooded the FCC online filing system with suggestions on how the agency should implement its open-Internet rules, which were struck down in January.

“We have seen an overwhelming surge in traffic on our website that is making it difficult for many people to file comments through our Electronic Comment Filing System,” FCC spokeswoman Kim Hart said in a news release.

The commission has received more than 600,000 public comments on its net-neutrality proposal (Docket No. 14-28), making it one of the most active proceedings in the agency's history.

Deadline Extended

On May 15, the FCC approved a notice of proposed rulemaking (NPRM) to replace and potentially strengthen the vacated portions of the commission's 2010 Open Internet order. The controversial plan asks whether the commission should permit prioritized connections between some websites and broadband providers or regulate broadband Internet providers like public utilities, among other questions.

The nation's top Internet service providers (ISPs)––AT&T Inc., Comcast Corp., Time Warner Cable Inc. and Verizon Communications Inc.––stand to benefit if the agency's final rules permit them to enter into paid prioritization deals with content companies such as Amazon.com Inc., Google Inc. and Netflix Inc. Those same ISPs stand to lose the most if the agency ultimately decides to regulate their networks like common carriers, something the NPRM also considers.

Citizens have generally urged the commission to prohibit paid prioritization deals, which they say will reduce the openness of the Web, and have asked the commission to reclassify broadband Internet services under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, which gives the FCC the express and expansive authority to regulate common carrier services. Broadband Internet services currently are categorized under Title I of the Communications Act as "information services" that are subject to less stringent regulations.

Title II Battle Rages

Thirteen Senate Democrats joined public interest groups such as Free Press and Public Knowledge in calling on the FCC to reclassify broadband Internet as Title II services, according to a letter sent July 15.

The FCC should put “truly effective open Internet rules on the books,” the letter to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said. “We believe that authority already resides in Title II.”

The letter was signed by Sens. Edward Markey (D-Mass.), Richard Blumenthal (D-Conn.), Corey Booker (D-N.J.), Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Al Franken (D-Minn.), Kristen Gillibrand (D-N.Y.), Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.), Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) and Ron Wyden (D-Ore.).

ISPs have loudly protested the idea of Title II reclassification and continued to do so in recent filings at the commission.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) said adopting a Title II regulatory structure would be a “disastrous policy reversal,” in its comments filed with the commission. Such a proposal would “affirmatively undermine” the FCC policy objectives “by significantly deterring the ongoing investments necessary to deploy broadband further and support the Internet's continuing evolution,” the association said.

NCTA said Title II reclassification would likely be unlawful since the FCC previously reclassified broadband Internet access as “information services” under Title I of the Communications Act.

"If the Commission were to pursue a Title II reclassification theory, it would face the considerable risk of being reversed yet again in its efforts to impose open Internet requirements,” the NCTA filing said.

Paid Prioritization Ban

The 13 senators said they are concerned the FCC open-Internet NPRM could “undermine the openness of the Internet,” and further urged the FCC to ban paid prioritization deals between ISPs and Internet content providers.

“Because the item tentatively concludes that Internet service providers would be allowed to offer faster delivery times for websites, applications or services that pay for it, the commission's proposal could fundamentally alter the Internet as we know it,” the Senate letter said. Sanctioning paid prioritization deals “would leave start-ups and small businesses to suffer in a new Internet slow lane, harming our economy and job growth,” the letter said.

The FCC proposal seeks comment on whether the agency should permit ISPs to enter into paid-prioritization deals with content companies, as long as they are considered “commercially reasonable.” The proposal asks whether the FCC should adopt a rebuttable presumption that puts the onus on ISPs to show that such deals are not commercially unreasonable.

The NPRM seeks to reduce harm by creating a new legal precedent that would consider, on a case-by-case basis, any disputes that the FCC considers harmful to competition and consumers. The proposal also seeks comment on whether the FCC should explicitly ban paid-prioritization deals.

To contact the reporter on this story: Bryce Baschuk in Washington at bbaschuk@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Heather Rothman at hrothman@bna.com

Information on the comment deadline extension is online at http://transition.fcc.gov/Daily_Releases/Daily_Business/2014/db0715/DOC-328233A1.pdf.