Music fans might not have to worry about getting stuck in an internet slow lane, after all.
Last year, a host of musicians signed an open letter supporting network neutrality, or the principle that all online data should be treated equally. In November, President Barack Obama released a plan echoing such calls for full net neutrality, but it wasn’t clear if the top U.S. telecom regulator would agree. One way or another, change has been in the cards since judges struck down the previous net neutrality rule almost a year ago.
Now, Federal Communications Commission chair Tom Wheeler has signaled he might end up siding with Obama and the musos. At this week’s Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas (where Sony also unveiled its new high-res luxury Walkman), Wheeler spoke in favor of tougher rules that would treat internet service as a utility just like landline phone service. The comments are the clearest indication yet that he might propose a rule that blocks broadband companies from potentially charging Spotify, Pandora, YouTube and other content providers extra for faster access to customers.
From the music world, prominent signers of last year’s open letter backing net neutrality included Michael Stipe, Neko Case and Jeff Mangum. Future of Music Coalition, an artists’ advocacy group, championed the Obama plan in a Pitchfork op-ed. The American Association of Independent Music, which represents indie labels, has endorsed the same idea.
Wheeler plans to detail his full proposal on February 5. For the rule to pass, he’ll still need support from at least two of the other commissioners on the five-member FCC voting panel. The vote is scheduled for February 26.
The remarks come as something of a reversal for Wheeler, a former cable industry lobbyist who had previously been considering a plan more in tune with the interests of broadband providers such as Comcast, Verizon and Time Warner Cable.
Wheeler’s speech faced criticism from top Republicans in Congress. Senate Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune, from South Dakota, told Politico he has urged the SEC to wait until lawmakers can pass a bill of their own to address the net neutrality rule. Meanwhile, Democrats have proposed a bill that would ban broadband providers from giving certain content higher priority.
For now, though, Wheeler’s words stand as a reason for music fans, weary of recent tragedy-fueled news cycles, to fend off complete cynicism, at least for another month.