The Federal Communications Commission has opened an investigation into recent deals where entertainment companies like Netflix have agreed to pay Internet service providers like Comcast and Verizon for faster video delivery, a practice that critics contend will divide Internet service into fast and slow lanes.
Tom Wheeler, the FCC chairman, said Friday that the purpose of the investigation was to see whether consumers were getting the speed and quality of service that Internet service providers had promised. The inquiry resulted in part from more than 19,000 public comments submitted to the FCC in recent weeks urging it to protect Internet freedom, he said.
“Consumers pay their ISP and they pay content providers like Hulu, Netflix or Amazon,” Wheeler said. “Then when they don’t get good service, they wonder what is going on. I have experienced these problems myself and know how exasperating it can be.”
He added: “To be clear, what we are doing right now is collecting information, not regulating. We are looking under the hood. Consumers want transparency. They want answers. So do I.”
The thousands of comments from the public came in response to the agency’s proposal last month to institute a new set of rules that Wheeler and other commissioners said would keep the Internet free and maintain net neutrality, the concept that Internet service providers should treat all legal Web traffic equally.
Critics, however, say the FCC’s proposal would destroy net neutrality by allowing pay-for-priority deals, which could stifle start-up companies that do not have the cash to pay the tolls.
The move by the FCC is significant because it has begun an investigation of Internet service providers at the same time that it is trying to define whether it has jurisdiction over their businesses. There is no guarantee that the commission has the power to do anything because there are currently no rules in place to enforce net neutrality; two earlier attempts by the FCC to forge rules were thrown out by an appeals court.
The agency has managed to get Internet service providers to agree to abide by net neutrality. But the deal between Netflix and Comcast, struck in February, has opened the commission to criticism that it is not enforcing net neutrality principles. Even Netflix itself, after agreeing to pay Comcast, objected to the terms of the agreement, asserting that it should not have to pay to stream its video content to its customers.
Wheeler as well as many others at the FCC and in the Internet industry say that such agreements — known as peering or interconnection agreements — are not covered by net neutrality, arguing that the concept extends only to the so-called last mile of Internet service to the consumer’s screen.
The agency does, however, have the authority to ensure that telecommunications companies act in the public interest, and Wheeler appears to be acting under that authority.
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