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Diversity Groups Push Back On Title II Reclassification

WASHINGTON — Several diversity groups are getting behind Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s vision of an open Internet, arguing that FCC authority, rather than Title II reclassification, is the best way to go.

Cable operators applauded the concerns voiced by Rainbow PUSH and the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council, which said last week that Title II — essentially regulating the Internet like a utility — was the wrong route. Those groups and dozens more went so far as to say that Title II could hurt diversity.

In their comments, the groups said the FCC should use its authority under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act — which allows it to promote advanced communications services to all Americans — to protect an open Internet, “coupled with a [rebuttable] presumption against paid prioritization and with strong and well-enforced consumer protections.” The FCC must also create an “accessible, affordable, expedited” process to handle complaints, they said.

The NAACP, which filed separate comments in tandem with the Communications Workers of America, also supports using Section 706 authority to justify new rules, but did not take aim at Title II in its comments.

The groups brand Title II an out-of-date structure that would increase consumer prices, slow broadband adoption, potentially choke innovation and diminish investment and lead to years of regulatory ambiguity and litigation.

Wheeler’s proposal to use Section 706 authority to justify new network-neutrality rules has faced a storm of blowback from net-neutrality backers who have said the chairman is creating Internet fast and slow lanes, and only Title II reclassification will suffice.

Wheeler has said Title II is a legitimate option. But last week he appeared to be taking further steps to demonstrate the FCC has the authority to enforce the network management transparency crucial to a Section 706-based, case-by-case review of commercially-reasonable discrimination.

In a strongly-worded advisory to ISPs, Wheeler said that as of last week, broadband providers cannot claim they didn’t know the FCC was watching . “The FCC’s transparency rule requires that consumers get the information they need to make informed choices about the broadband services they purchase,” Wheeler wrote. “We expect providers to be fully transparent about the details of their services, and we will hold them accountable if they fall down on this obligation to consumers.”

An FCC spokesperson told Multichannel News the warning was rooted in hundreds of consumer complaints the agency received over the past year about various ISP-related issues, including broadband speeds and usage caps.

But the very stern public warning about how seriously the FCC takes, and will monitor, network management and services was also a way to soften the turf for the FCC’s commercially-reasonable standard for allowing, or disallowing, discrimination on a case-by-case basis.

That standard hinges on consumers and the FCC being able to judge what networks are actually doing so they can decide whether that is commercially reasonable.

The public is clearly interested in proposed new network-neutrality rules, logging more than 1 million comments so far. The FCC moved its deadline from July 15 to July 18 to make room for more than 200,000 more comments, according to FCC figures. The move came after the agency conceded it was having trouble handling the volume of comments to both the docket and a separate email address created to collect even more input.

Reply comments will still be coming in until Sept. 10 and — technically — can keep coming in until seven days before the new rules are scheduled for a vote, which the chairman has targeted by year’s end.