WASHINGTON — Beaten back twice by the courts, the nation's top communications regulator will make a last-ditch attempt to craft rules aimed at ensuring the Internet remains open and free of interference from a rapidly consolidating broadband industry.
Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler, moving quickly after a court tossed out most of the agency's so-called net neutrality rules last month, started a new effort Wednesday to recraft regulations that advocates say would form the cornerstone for future broadband and pay-TV service.
"The stakes are high, for your wallet and your free speech," Delara Derakhshani, policy counsel for Consumers Union, said in urging the public to let the FCC know how they feel about the issue.
A federal appeals court last month overturned rules prohibiting Internet service providers from blocking consumers' access to websites and discriminating against some content, such as video-streaming services, that compete with the carriers' own on-demand offerings.
Wheeler said he and his fellow commissioners would try to draft new rules in the coming months that would stand up to future legal challenges from companies such as Verizon Communications Inc.
"The Internet is and must remain the greatest engine of free expression, innovation, economic growth and opportunity the world has ever known," said Wheeler, an assertive former telecom industry lobbyist.
Wheeler took over the agency in November after being nominated by President Obama. He was a major fundraiser for Obama, who made net neutrality a key plank in his 2008 campaign.
The FCC's new effort comes as Netflix Inc. has been feuding with Verizon and Comcast Corp. over who should pay for upgrading older Internet infrastructure to improve online speeds. Many who watched the second season of the Netflix hit "House of Cards" over the weekend, for instance, complained about slow Internet speeds that disrupted their viewing.
Outside of regulation, the FCC could impose net neutrality rules on any approval of Comcast's bid to buy Time Warner Cable Inc., a deal that would create a behemoth with 30 million of the nation's 92 million broadband customers and 30% of pay-television subscribers.
To win approval for its 2011 acquisition of NBC Universal, Comcast promised to adhere to the agency's net neutrality rules until January 2018, regardless of what the courts ruled. Comcast has said it would extend that promise to Time Warner Cable customers.
The issue of treating all Internet traffic equally is crucial to companies such as Netflix, Hulu and Amazon.com Inc., which rely on high-speed connections to deliver movies and television shows seamlessly to the home.
Netflix Chief Executive Reed Hastings worried that the appellate court's Jan. 14 ruling would enable Internet providers to impose fees on companies such as his in order to give priority treatment to the video content the companies stream across the network.
A domestic Internet service provider "now can legally impede the video streams that members request from Netflix, degrading the experience," Hastings wrote in a message to investors at the time.
"The motivation could help get Netflix to pay fees to stop this degradation. Were this draconian scenario to unfold ... we would vigorously protest," he wrote.
Hastings said he doubted that Internet providers would deliberately "throttle," or slow Internet speeds, for fear of angering customers or attracting increased regulatory scrutiny.
It's a sentiment echoed by Anthony DiClemente, an Internet and media analyst with Nomura Securities.
"Should some sort of scenario unfold where the Verizons or Comcasts of the world would try and charge either the consumer or Netflix for bandwidth usage, I think that the consumers would protest," he said.
The FCC's efforts, at this point, are designed to avoid taking the controversial step of formally designating high-speed Internet service as a telecom service subject to utility-like regulation.
Many consumer groups and Democrats have advocated such a move because it is more likely to pass legal muster.
More than 105,000 people signed a petition to the White House urging Obama to direct the FCC to do so.