The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) looks set to pass net neutrality rules in a vote tomorrow morning.
Under the plan wired internet service providers would be prevented from differentiating traffic, but wireless suppliers would be free to tier and price traffic for end-users. Telecommunications companies argue that this is necessary to raise the revenues to upgrade networks but user groups are concerned.
"Under the rules the Chairman will bring to a vote tomorrow, those who go online with a wireless device will be at the mercy of the big telephone companies to practice whatever mischief they wish to get around the bare-bone approach the Commission took," said Gigi B Sohn, president of the Public Knowledge interest group.
"Cell phones and smart phones are a major internet 'onramp' for poor Americans and people of colour."
The vote looks certain to pass after one of the five FCC commission members, Democrat Michael Copps, issued a statement stating that he would vote for the rules. The commission is made up of three Democrats and two Republicans and based on public positions taken by the others the vote looks sure to pass.
"I have been fighting for nearly a decade to make sure the internet doesn't travel down the same road of special interest consolidation and gate-keeper control that other media and telecommunications industries - radio, television, film and cable - have travelled," Copps said.
"What an historic tragedy it would be to let that fate befall the dynamism of the internet. The item we will vote on tomorrow is not the one I would have crafted. But I believe we have been able to make the current iteration better than what was originally circulated."
However, the Republicans have taken the position that net neutrality rules are an imposition from the government. Commissioner Robert McDowell has been openly critical of the proposals.
"On this winter solstice, we will witness jaw-dropping interventionist chutzpah as the FCC bypasses branches of our government in the dogged pursuit of needless and harmful regulation," he said in an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal.
"The darkest day of the year may end up marking the beginning of a long winter's night for internet freedom."
Analysts are concerned that mobile pricing could stifle growth in the fastest-growing proportion of the internet, and that the guidelines for wired access are too lax. They will certainly boost revenue among some providers and that may be used to roll out so-called 4G networks.
The move sees the world's internet markets splitting slightly, with the EU taking a much firmer line on net neutrality. In the UK the government has confirmed that it too is set on keeping access open, although there may be proposals to filter traffic.
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