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FCC Schedules Net Neutrality Vote for February

Controversial vote on the agency’s Open Internet rules is expected to draw pressure from all sides

It looks like Feb. 26 will be D-Day for an FCC vote on net neutrality.

Kim Hart, an aide to FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, confirmed on Friday that a vote on the FCC’s Open Internet rules has been tentatively scheduled for the commission’s monthly meeting in February.

The controversial vote is expected to sharply divide the commission, with its three Democrats supporting the new rules and its two Republicans opposing it.

The vote is also likely to set off a heated debate in the political arena, where President Obama has been a fierce backer of net neutrality and most Republicans in congress have warned the FCC against taking action. The commission is expected to face a deluge of pressure from both sides in Congress and from consumer groups, the White House and consumers.

While the eventual 3-to-2 vote tally seems all but assured, Republican and Democratic commission members have been conducting extensive talks about the exact shape the rules will take and whether they will include a complete ban on Internet service providers (ISPs) offering content suppliers better service for an additional charge — or “paid prioritization.”

The Feb. 26 meeting is most likely when the vote will take place, but the FCC has historically delayed some controversial votes.

Consumers groups and unions including the Writers Guild of America have been pushing the FCC to act strongly to establish net neutrality, warning that without the agency’s action, the Internet’s future could be threatened.

They suggest that, without any requirement that ISPs stay neutral when delivering data, preferred content providers will gain a fast lane to consumers, leaving everyone else the slow lane. That, they have told the FCC in comments, could make it difficult for new alternatives and businesses to mount legitimate challenges to big established rivals.

The groups have urged the FCC to make the foundation of any new rules the reversal of its determination that broadband Internet falls under “information services” as opposed to traditional telecom services. Making that decision, they say, would give the FCC the strongest legal authority to withstand certain legal challenges to any net neutrality rules.

Internet service providers and opponents of FCC action, meanwhile, insist that the Internet has achieved its potential and has become an engine of economic growth by operating free from most regulation. They have warned the FCC that imposing regulation could jeopardize needed investments in faster transmissions lines and threaten the country’s economic growth and ability to compete globally.

Wheeler has indicated that he is examining a middle ground in which the FCC would seek to fortify its legal stance by reclassifying information services as “telecommunications services,” but under a special classification that would exempt ISPs from many of the rules that govern telephonic services.