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FCC Chair Likely to Propose Strong Net Neutrality this Week

At last month’s Consumer Electronics Show FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler announced that the agency would reclassify internet service as a utility, which should qualify it for stronger network neutrality protections. Wheeler promised the new rules would circulate to fellow commissioners by February 5, and news reports on Monday indicate that he will make good on that.

Based upon details reported in the press, a significant element of Wheeler’s proposed rules is a prohibition on paid priority–also called an “internet fast lane”–that causes certain sites from being provided at higher or lower speeds based upon fees charged by internet service providers. Also included is the authority to regulate interconnection deals between ISPs and the content distribution networks which handle traffic for streaming video and audio services, such as Netflix or Pandora.

Of particular interest to internet radio and podcasting is that the proposed rules are also expected to cover mobile broadband, not just wired internet service. Mobile listening, especially in the car, is a place where both streaming and on-demand audio have a lot of growth potential, but where data limits and throttling also threaten to stunt that growth.

It should be noted that there’s no indication that strong net neutrality provisions on mobile broadband would necessarily have any impact on data limits, and it’s likely the rules governing the management of bandwidth will be different than wired internet service. However, differential treatment between services–such as streaming audio vs. map data–could potentially be addressed.

Network neutrality in both wired and wireless broadband services is important for all kinds of internet radio and audio. Even though audio requires less data and bandwidth than video in general, any additional fees required for an independent internet broadcaster or podcaster to reach listeners could threaten the vibrant diversity of audio programming that has thrived online because of the reduced barriers to entry compared to broadcast. Open internet rules can also affect the distribution of programming to stations, as well as to listeners.

Although the plan for public publication of the proposal is not yet known, it’s expected more concrete details will leak when it circulates to the FCC Commissioners later this week.

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