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Broadband Companies Nervous Over Latest Net Neutrality Push

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Broadband companies are fighting back against a push to add teeth to the Federal Communications Commission's wavering defense of net neutrality.

According to a Democratic House staffer, former New York representative-turned-National Cable and Telecommunications Association lobbyist Thomas Downey is looking for House members willing to sign on to a letter opposing any move to treat Internet service providers like public utilities. Federal courts have said that reclassifying Internet providers as utilities would hand the FCC a bulletproof tool to prevent broadband companies from charging companies like Netflix for faster access to customers.

The letter argues that the "regulatory burdens and restrictions" resulting from reclassification could have a "potentially negative impact on job creation."

Reclassifying Internet providers as "common carriers" under the Telecommunications Act would immediately give the FCC a clear legal framework for more closely regulating Internet providers. But for years, the agency has avoided this one step even as it sought ways to protect net neutrality.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, confirmed by the Senate in November 2013, has never voiced support for reclassification, but now he has reportedly suggested that he will retain it as an option. Congressional opposition, especially from Democrats, could help him quell the pressure for immediate reclassification from net neutrality advocates.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association, which lobbies for the broadband industry, sounded an even more dire warning when asked about the proposed congressional letter. Spokesman Brian Dietz wrote in an email that net neutrality advocates are "employing aggressive tactics and misinformation to try and bully the FCC into the radical and unwarranted step of reclassifying broadband into a Title II public utility. Such a step would be devastating to the United States."

"Given the ruinous consequences of such a fateful step, we are making our views known as widely as possible," Dietz added.

Rep. Gene Green (D-Texas) is set to be the lead signer of the letter, according to the House staffer. Green's office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Although the broadband industry paints a dire picture of reclassification, advocates argue it would simply maintain the status quo before a January court ruling opened the way for Internet "fast lanes." Major Internet provider Comcast had already agreed not to charge for access to its customers until 2018, as a condition of its 2011 merger with NBC Universal.

Just a few weeks ago, following reports that Wheeler would allow broadband companies to charge for a fast lane to their customers, cable companies were pleased. But then net neutrality advocates and even one of Wheeler's fellow Democrats on the FCC expressed their concerns, and they seem to have caught Wheeler's attention.

According to a Sunday report in The Wall Street Journal, Wheeler will now seek to prohibit the creation of online fast lanes. He will reportedly not seek reclassification, but he will accept comments on whether it is necessary, which could provide a basis for taking that step in the future. The FCC's commissioners are scheduled to vote Monday on the notice of proposed rulemaking being drafted by Wheeler.

Broadband providers are "clearly trying to rally members of Congress who aren't paying close attention to this issue to counteract the overwhelming public response to what the FCC is proposing to do," said Tim Karr of the open Internet group Free Press.

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