Under fire from liberals, the commission chairman hints at broader rules.
The Federal Communications Commission is eyeing an expansion of its net-neutrality rules to cover cell-phone service.
In a speech Tuesday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that Internet access on smartphones is a "key component" of the investment and innovation that net-neutrality regulations are intended to protect.
"Although the comment cycle has not yet closed, we are already closely examining the issues and the record," he said at a wireless industry conference in Las Vegas, according to a copy of his prepared remarks. "One of the constant themes on the record is how consumers increasingly rely on mobile broadband as an important pathway to access the Internet."
In 2010, the FCC enacted net-neutrality regulations that barred home broadband providers like Comcast from blocking or "unreasonably" discriminating against any Internet traffic. But the rules were much weaker for Internet service on smartphones.
Wireless providers like Verizon and AT&T couldn't outright block websites, but they were free to speed up or slow down certain services or exempt others from monthly data caps.
A federal court struck the rules down earlier this year, and the FCC is now trying to come up with new regulations that can survive future court challenges. Wheeler's initial proposal sparked a major backlash because it would allow landline broadband providers to in some cases charge websites for access to special "fast lanes."
In the new proposal, the FCC asked for input on whether to expand the rules to wireless networks, but tentatively concluded that the lighter regulatory scheme should stay in place. Wheeler appears to be revisiting that decision.
He said that there have been "significant changes in the mobile marketplace since 2010," such as faster cellular service and many more people relying on their smartphones to access the Internet.
He pointed to a filing from Microsoft, which urged the commission to use the same regulatory framework for cell-phone and home Internet providers. Consumers now live in "mobile first" world, Microsoft claimed.
Wheeler reiterated his criticism of cell-phone service providers for throttling Internet speeds for customers with unlimited data plans in certain circumstances. He also said the providers may have misled the customers by promising them unlimited data.
"I am hard pressed to understand how either practice, much less the two together, could be a reasonable way to manage a network," Wheeler said.
He argued that just because consumers have more choices for cell-phone service than their home Internet connection doesn't mean that the cellular providers won't restrict online freedom.
Expanding net-neutrality regulations to cell-phone service would outrage the wireless providers. In a filing to the FCC, wireless lobbying group CTIA warned that applying the rules to wireless networks would risk stifling the industry's growth.
Wireless Internet is different, the group wrote, because of constraints on how much data the networks can handle.
The chairman's possible shift comes as he is under intense pressure from Democrats and liberal advocacy groups to strengthen his rules.
Netflix, Reddit, Digg, Mozilla, and dozens of other sites will display symbolic loading icons on their websites Wednesday as part of a protest over the proposed rules, which they warn would allow broadband providers to distort the Internet in favor of the largest companies.
Michael Weinberg, a vice president for consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, said it's "critical" that the FCC apply the same rules to wired and wireless Internet access. The FCC can allow for some flexibility in what it considers "reasonable" discrimination for different technologies, Weinberg said, but it shouldn't use a totally different regulatory scheme like it did in 2010.
"It was a bad idea then, and it would be a worse idea now," Weinberg said.
Matt Wood, policy director for Free Press, emphasized that toughening the wireless rules wouldn't be enough to win the support of activists. Wheeler would have to ban any provider from creating "fast lanes" on the Internet, Wood said.
"I'm not so much interested in any of this until Chairman Wheeler strengthens the entire proposal," Wood said. "The parity that would result from adopting a mediocre proposal for both platforms won't help anyone."