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FCC to propose regulating the Internet as a utility - report

U.S. Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is expected to issue a proposal this week that would see the agency classify Internet access as a telecommunications utility, a move that may also include reclassification for data services from wireless carriers.

Wheeler will not seek to interfere in pricing, according to the New York Times, but will instead model his new proposal on the "light touch" regulations adopted for mobile voice service in 1993. The report comes days after the commission updated its definition of "broadband" to mean connections with download speeds of at least 25 megabits per second.

Classifying internet service providers as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act would give the FCC legal authority to impose more strict regulations, such as a prohibition on the creation of so-called "fast lanes" which are at the center of the net neutrality debate. Common carriers are forbidden from discriminating against customers who wish to use the service and are willing to pay a reasonable fee.

Net neutrality activists, including companies like Apple and Google, have been clamoring for reclassification for years. The process was given a kickstart when President Obama called for such an action late last year.

Obama's plan rests on four pillars: no blocking, no throttling, increased transparency, and no paid prioritization. Broadly, this means that if a customer wants access to legal content, they should not be impeded from accessing it in any way.

"So the time has come for the FCC to recognize that broadband service is of the same importance and must carry the same obligations as so many of the other vital services do," Obama said at the time. "To do that, I believe the FCC should reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act — while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services. This is a basic acknowledgment of the services ISPs provide to American homes and businesses, and the straightforward obligations necessary to ensure the network works for everyone — not just one or two companies."

Wheeler is expected to submit his proposal to the full commission by Thursday, and a vote is scheduled for Feb. 26.