WASHINGTON - Months of debate and more than 1 million comments about rules for Web traffic may have moved regulators to consider tougher standards for wireless networks that connect smartphones and tablets.
With the Federal Communications Commission ending its period to accept comments Monday, Chairman Tom Wheeler is weighing whether to bar wireless companies led by AT&T and Verizon Communications from treating differently some Web content -- applying the same rules as wired services.
The agency already has drawn a firestorm for Wheeler's proposal in May to allow Internet service providers, including cable companies such as Comcast, to accept payment for moving Web traffic faster. Such arrangements would divide the Internet into fast and slow lanes with companies that can pay getting speedy access to consumers, while those that can't languishing with slow connections, according to critics.
"Given some of the opposition to Wheeler's proposal that he floated earlier in the year, I think he's taking a more open view and putting every issue on the table," said Andrew Lipman, a Washington-based partner at the law firm Bingham McCutchen.
As of Sept. 10, an FCC record of 1.5 million public comments had been submitted, Gigi Sohn, special counsel for external affairs, said on Twitter. Analysis of the comments by the Sunlight Foundation showed most commenters are opposed to Wheeler's proposal and want to maintain the ideal of treating Web traffic equally, a concept known as net neutrality. The foundation, based in Washington, D.C., says it is an open government advocate.
Public-interest groups want utility-style rules for high-speed Internet service, or broadband, said Andrew Jay Schwartzman, senior counselor at the Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation in Washington. The next priority is extending the rules to wireless, he said.
"More and more people are relying on wireless as their principal source of Internet connectivity," Schwartzman said. "And wireless technology more and more resembles what's available on wireline services."
"Chairman Wheeler understands what's at stake," Schwartzman said. A speech last week by the chairman shows he "may be leaning in favor of applying full network neutrality to wireless," Schwartzman said.
Wireless service has become faster through so-called LTE technology, and is more widespread than when the FCC decided on lighter treatment for wireless in 2010, Wheeler said in the speech to CTIA-The Wireless Association.
The FCC "will have to wrestle" with whether wireless services face constraints that make open-Internet rules inappropriate for them, Wheeler said.
He tentatively proposed continuing the wireless exemption in rules released in May that haven't been subject to a final FCC vote.
The tentative rules asked whether changes in the mobile market "should lead us to revisit our treatment of mobile broadband service," said Kim Hart, an FCC spokeswoman. "Chairman Wheeler reiterated that question in his speech."
Wheeler's speech showed the chairman "wanting to lay the groundwork for regulating more in the wireless area," said Robert McDowell, a former Republican member of the FCC. "I don't know what's changed in terms of the pretext for the FCC to want to go in this direction."
A day after the speech, Meredith Attwell Baker, president of the trade group that represents wireless companies, offered a reply. "We are told the remarkable growth of smartphones and LTE since the 2010 rules warrants heavier regulation now," Baker said. "Wrong again."
Mobile networks have limited capacity and need flexibility to operate smoothly, Baker's CTIA said in a Sept. 4 report. The group represents U.S. mobile leaders Verizon and AT&T as well as the two smaller nationwide carriers, Sprint and T-Mobile US.
Wireless providers have corporate adversaries in the debate. The Internet Association, representing companies that need to pass over mobile networks and systems run by cable providers led by Comcast, told the FCC last week rules should apply equally.
"There is only one Internet and the FCC's open Internet rules should recognize that," said Michael Beckerman, president of the group representing members such as Google Inc., Facebook Inc. and Yahoo! Inc.
"No matter how users choose to connect to the Internet, net neutrality rules should apply universally on both wireless and wireline networks," Beckerman said.
Earlier, Microsoft in a filing told the FCC wireless network providers have the same incentive to block or degrade traffic from innovators. The FCC should apply rules equally, Microsoft said.
The agency hasn't set a date for a final vote on net neutrality rules, and is under no deadline to act.