FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler appears poised to propose new rules that would classify Internet service providers as public utilities in a move designed to ensure everyone has the same access to free content online.
Wheeler strongly indicated Wednesday that he favors the shift to tougher regulations, describing it as "just and reasonable" during an appearance in Las Vegas at the International CES, a technology industry gadget show.
The remarks suggest that the head of the Federal Communications Commission is falling in line with President Barack Obama, who announced in November that he favors governing Internet service providers like telephone companies to preserve a "free and open" Internet.
Major Internet service providers fiercely oppose the change, arguing it will kill jobs and discourage them from investing in network upgrades.
Any revision to Internet regulations still must gain the support of at least two other commissioners besides Wheeler on the FCC's five-member voting panel.
Wheeler said he intends to release the full details of his proposal Feb. 5. The FCC is scheduled to vote on the issue Feb. 26.
A federal appeals court threw the future direction of Internet regulation into limbo nearly a year ago when it overturned previous rules designed to preserve "net neutrality." That's the concept that all websites should be treated equally even if the amount of traffic they attract strains an online network's capacity.
After the court ruling, Wheeler indicated he might support a system that consumer activists feared would allow powerful online service providers such as Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable to create a two-tier system that funnels Internet traffic into fast and slow lanes. If that happened, only the richest companies might be able to pay the extra tolls to ensure their online content reaches the widest audiences, making it more difficult for startups developing potential technological breakthroughs to survive.
"You want to make sure that innovators and consumers have open access to the networks," Wheeler said Wednesday.
Michael Powell, an FCC chairman under President George W. Bush who now leads a trade group representing Internet service providers, has previously warned the adoption of utility-style regulations "would create devastating results."
Wheeler indicated his proposal will still give Internet service providers plenty of incentives to upgrade their networks to provide even better online access for all their customers.