A proposal floated Wednesday by the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission to regulate the Internet as a public utility could lead to more competition for high-speed Internet in Maine, according to local experts.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler penned an op-ed that appeared in Wired on Wednesday, laying out rules that he said would “preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation and free expression.”

Specifically, Wheeler said he plans to propose rules prohibiting companies that offer Internet service from charging websites for faster delivery of their content and from blocking or slowing other content or services. He also made clear his desire that the regulations apply to wired and wireless Internet services.

To accomplish his aims, Wheeler’s proposal would reclassify Internet service providers as common carriers regulated under Title II of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

These principles, collectively known as “net neutrality,” have been supported by consumer rights advocates, human rights groups, online companies and some technology companies. In the past, the FCC had considered rule changes that would let Internet providers create a tiered environment in which companies could pay a premium to obtain an Internet speed advantage over their competitors.

Many of the large telecommunications companies, such as Time Warner Cable, which provides the majority of cable-based Internet service in Maine, have opposed the principle of “net neutrality” and threatened to sue the FCC if it approves the regulations Wheeler is proposing on the grounds the agency would be overstepping its authority.

But Fletcher Kittredge, president of GWI, a Biddeford-based provider of phone and Internet service in southern Maine, said Wednesday that he agrees with Wheeler.

“I have come to the conclusion, like he has, that Title II is the way to go,” Kittredge said. “My reasoning is I don’t see how you can say the Internet isn’t a utility. … It’s very hard to live and be part of modern society without clean water, without power and without the Internet. It’s replaced the phone as the way people communicate and the telephone was always a utility.”

He said Wheeler’s proposal, if approved by the five-person commission at its next meeting on Feb. 26, “absolutely is a big deal.”

COMPETITION BARRIERS COULD FALL

Regulating Internet-service providers in Maine under Title II could lead to more competition to provide broadband service, according to Phil Lindley, executive director of the ConnectME Authority, which seeks to expand Internet service in Maine.

The change would make it easier for competitive broadband providers to gain access to the telecom infrastructure, such as telephone poles. By way of example, Lindley said Maine Fiber Co., which built the Three-Ring Binder project, a 1,100-mile fiber network spanning southern and northern Maine, had to lobby to receive a special designation from the Maine Public Utilities Commission in order to string its fiber along poles owned by FairPoint Communications, the largest landline telephone provider in the state. FairPoint tried to prevent Maine Fiber from receiving the designation.

If the FCC had been regulating Internet service as a utility at the time, that wouldn’t have been necessary, Lindley said. New providers “would have a legal right to that pole,” he said.

Maine’s rank among states with the slowest average Internet speeds makes Wheeler’s proposal especially significant. If approved, it could have major implications for the state’s broadband industry. Maine has ranked close to the bottom on lists of broadband speeds by state, including a report based on Ookla NetMetrics data that said Maine ranks 49th out of the 50 states and a recent report from Akamai Technologies that puts Maine 48th in the nation and far behind countries such as Estonia and Macao.

But opposition to the proposal is expected to be fierce among the nation’s top Internet service providers.

The National Cable and Telecommunications Association issued a statement Wednesday saying Wheeler’s proposal will result “in a backward-looking new regulatory regime, ill-suited for the dynamic Internet with far-reaching and troubling consequences” and that the “FCC’s authority is unnecessary and will only deliver further uncertainty. … We remain concerned that this proposal will confer sweeping discretion to regulate rates and set the economic terms and conditions of business relationships.”

John Sununu and Harold Ford Jr., co-chairs of Broadband for America, also released a statement Wednesday calling Wheeler’s proposal “an unprecedented expansion of FCC power.” They said heavy regulation of the Internet would have the unintended consequence of hurting the very Web-based companies advocating for net neutrality.

“This proposal would stifle investment, innovation and consumer choice,” they wrote. “Worse, the chairman’s plan could have spillover effects into the broader Internet ecosystem and threaten Silicon Valley companies that rely heavily on the Internet.”

LATEST IN LONG-RUNNING DEBATE

The debate over net neutrality is not new.

After a federal court tossed out the FCC’s net neutrality rules last year, Wheeler initially proposed a lighter regulatory approach that could have allowed for some paid prioritization of content.

But in November, President Barack Obama publicly called for the FCC to take a stronger approach that would classify the Internet as a regulated utility under federal law. Most Democrats support the tougher approach, but key congressional Republicans strongly oppose it.

Sen. Angus King of Maine has been a strong and vocal advocate for net neutrality on the national stage.

In September 2014, King sent a letter to Wheeler in which he urged him to implement “strong and unambiguous” net neutrality rules – exactly what Wheeler proposed Wednesday.

“Like water or electricity, the Internet is a staple of our lives and our economy,” King wrote at the time. “But just because it can be delivered by the same piece of wire or spun glass as cable TV doesn’t mean it should be confused in significance and functionality with it. People can choose whether to buy Lifetime or ESPN, but the Internet is a necessity for individuals and businesses. To effectively hand over control of this truly essential public service to the owners of the wires would be a mistake of historic proportions that would burden our society for generations.”

On Wednesday, King praised Wheeler’s decision.

“No one has any more of a right to the Internet than anyone else, and for the first time, the FCC is proposing strong, tailored, bright-line rules that will help safeguard that fundamental principle of fairness,” he said. “I look forward to learning more about the details of these rules prior to the FCC vote later this month, particularly regarding how protections will be applied to points of network interconnection, but am tremendously encouraged by this announcement.”

UNSEEN CONSEQUENCES?

Kittredge at GWI said the move toward regulating the Internet as a utility is uncharted territory, and there could be unintended consequences down the line. For example, if the FCC regulates the Internet as a utility that could, in theory, lead to price regulations.

Wheeler said the commission would not seek to dictate pricing, but would update the Title II rules to address rapidly changing technology that could shift the conversation. The new regulations, he wrote, “will be strong enough and flexible enough not only to deal with the realities of today, but also to establish ground rules for the as-yet unimagined.”

No matter what Wheeler’s rules specify, and whether the other commissioners approve them, the debate will not be over. The large telecom providers are expected to continue their fight against tightening the regulation of Internet access.

“Fasten your seat belts,” Kittredge said. “It’s going to be a rough ride. I’m sure this will be something we’ll be talking about for the next 15 years.”