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FCC chairman says there will be no Internet 'fast lane'

During a speech in Los Angeles, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler again defends his stance on Net neutrality and tries to reassure the public that he wants to keep the Internet open for all.

FCC Chariman Tom Wheeler addresses an audience at the NCTA's 2014 Cable Show in Los Angeles. Joan Solsman/CNET

LOS ANGELES -- Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler tried once again to reassure the public that he's not gutting Net neutrality regulation.

During a speech at the NCTA's Cable Show here on Wednesday, he told cable operators that if they think they'll get access to an Internet fast lane, as many publications reported last week, they're wrong.

"We will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service," he said.

Last week, a firestorm of criticism erupted when details of the FCC's proposal to reinstate Open Internet rules were made public. Media reports suggested that the FCC had changed its position on certain aspects of the rules, including shifting its stance to allow broadband providers to charge companies for a so-called fast lane of service. Critics say such a fast lane would favor the moneyed and undermine Net neutrality, the principle that the Internet remain equally accessible to all.

"Those of you who oppose Net neutrality might feel like a celebration was in order," he said. "Reports that we are gutting the Open Internet rules are incorrect. I am here to say wait a minute. Put away the party hats. The Open Internet rules will be tough, enforceable, and, with the concurrence of my colleagues, in place with dispatch."

Wheeler has published two blog posts trying to clear up the misunderstanding. And he used his appearance at The Cable Show here to once again emphasize the FCC's position. The FCC has been reworking Open Internet rules since January, when a federal appeals court threw out rules that had been passed by the FCC in 2010.

First, he reassured the audience and the public that the proposal, which has only been circulated among the FCC's commissioners and will be presented at the FCC's next open meeting on May 15, is only a proposal. And no rules are set in stone yet.

Second, he said the FCC is not allowing broadband providers to "force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges can have superior service."

"Let me be clear," he said. "If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have-nots, we will use every power at our disposal to stop it."

He also said he planned to keep reclassification of broadband traffic, which would impose more stringent regulation on broadband networks, as an option for keeping the Internet open. But he said the proposal is meant to develop rules that use the blueprint the appeals court laid out for the FCC in its decision.

"Our proposed course of action builds on the court's strong legal justification for regulation that guarantees every user the ability to effectively use the Internet," he said. "Just because it is my strong belief that following the court's roadmap will produce similar protections more quickly, does not mean I will hesitate to use Title II if warranted. And, in our notice, we are asking for input as to whether this approach should be used."

Wheeler also emphasized the need for competition in the broadband market. He highlighted AT&T's efforts to expand its fiber networks so that they can deliver 1-gigabit-per-second service in up to 100 communities. And he said he hoped the cable industry answers the call to speed up services for its customers.

"Competition promotes efficient pricing, technical progressiveness, consumer protection, and, yes, private investment," he said.

He also touted competition from municipal governments that may want to build their own high-speed Internet networks. He said he wants the FCC to preempt state laws that ban competition from these municipalities. He acknowledged that community broadband networks have had varying rates of success.

"But if municipal governments -- the same ones that granted cable franchises -- want to pursue it, they shouldn't be inhibited by state laws," he said. "I have said before that I believe the FCC has the power -- and I intend to exercise that power -- to preempt state laws that ban competition from community broadband."