Two Democrats on the Federal Communications Commission indicated they have serious concerns about Chairman Tom Wheeler's net neutrality proposal, casting doubt on his ability to start considering the plan next week.
The comments by Commissioners Mignon Clyburn and Jessica Rosenworcel came as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Yahoo led a group of about 150 online companies in writing to the FCC on Wednesday saying Wheeler's proposal to allow broadband providers to charge for faster delivery of content posed "a grave threat to the Internet."
With the two Republicans on the five-person agency opposed to enacting new net neutrality rules, Wheeler needs the votes of his fellow Democrats to move his plan forward.
An FCC spokesman said Wednesday that Wheeler intended to push ahead with his proposal.
Wheeler angered liberals and public interest groups last month when he unveiled details of his attempt to reestablish rules for Internet traffic after a federal court ruling overturned the agency's 2010 regulations.
Critics complained Wheeler was backtracking on the FCC's longstanding view that all legal online content should be treated equally and phone and cable companies shouldn't be allowed to create high-speed toll lanes on the Internet.
Such pay-for-priority arrangements would lead to higher prices for consumers, the critics said.
On Wednesday, Rosenworcel called on Wheeler to postpone a planned May 15 vote that would begin the formal rulemaking process. She asked for a delay of at least a month because she has "real concerns" about his proposal and wants to allow more time for public comment.
"His proposal has unleashed a torrent of public response. Tens of thousands of e-mails, hundreds of calls, commentary all across the Internet," Rosenworcel said in a speech to a meeting of the Chief Officers of State Library Agencies in Washington.
"We need to respect that input and we need time for that input," she said.
In a blog post Wednesday, Clyburn said she opposed pay-for-priority when the FCC enacted net neutrality rules in 2010. She also noted the outpouring of public input in recent weeks asking her to enact rules ensuring the Internet remains open.
"Over 100,000 Americans and counting," Clyburn wrote. "I am listening to your voices as I approach this critical vote to preserve an ever-free and open Internet."
Neither Clyburn nor Rosenworcel said they opposed Wheeler's plan, which includes other provisions Democrats support, such as prohibiting broadband providers from blocking any legal content.
Clyburn said her "mind remains open" and Rosenworcel gave Wheeler credit for saying that "all options are on the table."
Wheeler said he wants to act quickly to start considering his plan because, after the January court ruling, there are no rules governing Internet traffic. He wants the FCC to adopt new rules by the end of the year.
"Chairman Wheeler fully supports a robust public debate on how best to protect the open Internet, which is why he intends to put forward his proposals for public comment next week," the agency spokesman said.
"Moving forward will allow the American people to review and comment on the proposed plan without delay, and bring us one step closer to putting rules on the books to protect consumers and entrepreneurs online."
Wheeler has said broadband providers would have to give all customers a baseline level of service and any pay-for-priority deals would need to be "commercially reasonable" and be subject to FCC review.
"To be very direct, the proposal would establish that behavior harmful to consumers or competition by limiting the openness of the Internet will not be permitted," Wheeler said in a blog post last month.
But the comments by Rosenworcel and Clyburn indicate trouble for the proposal, said Craig Aaron, president of public interest group Free Press, which opposes it.
"The cracks are beginning to show in Chairman Wheeler's plan that would undermine net neutrality," he said. "The more people learn about this proposal, the more skeptical they become."