Strife in the Fast Lane: FCC Moves Forward With Controversial Plan

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler speaks during a news conference on May 15 at the FCC headquarters in Washington Photograph by Alex Wong/Getty Images

That sound you hear is net neutrality activists howling.

On Thursday, by a vote of 3 to 2, the Federal Communications Commission took another step forward with a controversial plan that, among other provisions, would allow Internet service providers such as Comcast, Verizon, and AT&T to charge companies for access to faster transfer of information over the Web.

A range of Internet companies and activists cried foul in recent weeks, arguing that the plan violates the principle, known as net neutrality, of treating all Web traffic equally. Critics say that if the plan eventually passes, it will give Internet service providers an incentive to slow down traffic for anybody unwilling or unable to pony up for the first-class service. This in turn, they argue, could stifle the culture of startup innovation that the Web has historically fostered.

Some observers, however, suggest that such dire predictions may be overblown. “Think of bandwidth as a highway: If an entirely new lane is added at the ISP’s expense, that does not harm anyone riding along on the preexisting highway,” writes Rich Greenfield, an analyst with BTIG. “We struggle to understand why enabling an ‘extra’ HOV lane is bad policy that requires government regulation. One should not simply assume that the creation of fast lanes of dedicated bandwidth forces everyone else who chooses not to pay ISPs, or cannot pay ISPs, into slow lanes.”

Today’s FCC vote advances the proposal into a phase for public comment. A final decision is expected later this year.

Meantime, net neutrality advocates have vowed to step up their already muscular opposition. “The Commission says it wants to hear from the public; it will be hearing a lot more,” wrote Free Press. “This fight will stretch into the fall, but there’s one clear answer: The American people demand real Net Neutrality, and the FCC must restore it.”

As Recode noted, today’s FCC vote now sets the stage for “what’s expected to be a summer of bickering over how the agency should proceed.”

Get ready for the net hot American summer.

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