Is FCC Chairman Wheeler really moving the ball on net neutrality? Stay tuned.

2015 CES
Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Assn., left, speaks with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.
(Consumer Electronics Assn.)

All the Internet has been abuzz since Wednesday, when Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler spoke as though he’s leaning toward much stricter oversight of net neutrality rules in a way that benefits consumers.

Wheeler’s words, spoken during a Q&A session at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, seemed to align him closely with President Obama, who in November declared that he favored reclassifying the Internet as a telecommunications service under Title II of the Telecommunications Act. That would recognize broadband as a “common carrier,” an approach the FCC abandoned in 2002.  Wheeler had previously seemed lukewarm to that approach, leading to the widespread impression that he and Obama, who appointed him to the FCC, were at odds.

The FCC’s preliminary transcript of Wheeler’s remarks, which were not prepared in advance, is here, and a video is here. Wheeler said he would introduce a new proposal on net neutrality to his fellow FCC commissioners on Feb. 5, with a vote on the plan scheduled for Feb. 26.

Net neutrality, to those in the know, is the principle that Internet service providers can’t slow down, throttle, block or otherwise interfere with Web services or sites they don’t like -- or by the same token, can’t favor sites or services they do like. The principle is threatened by the rise of powerful ISPs with data service interests of their own -- think Comcast, the biggest ISP in the country, which owns NBCUniversal and video-on-demand services that compete with the likes of Netflix and Google’s YouTube.


Wheeler’s words may also raise questions about the FCC’s approach to Comcast’s proposal to merge with the No. 2 ISP, Time Warner Cable, creating an even weightier Internet behemoth. The commission still has that merger plan on its docket.

The FCC has been struggling with net neutrality, also known as the “open Internet” debate, for years. The issue took on additional urgency last January, when a federal appeals court declared that the FCC’s previous effort to impose net neutrality restrictions violated federal law. Reclassifying Internet service under Title II “common carrier” rules, many net neutrality advocates maintain, gives the FCC the clearest legal authority to regulate ISP behavior.

Wheeler appeared to agree with that aspect of the law. Title II “has the best protections” for FCC initiatives aimed at ensuring that ISP management of website and Web service traffic doesn’t exceed “just and reasonable” limits.

He seemed to sweep aside claims by big ISPs that Title II would open the door to heavy-handed FCC regulations that stifle investment and innovation. That hasn’t happened in the wireless market, which is regulated under Title II, he said. The wireless industry has had “billions of dollars of investment, built the best wireless market, systems in the world, the most competitive wireless systems in the world, the most innovative wireless systems, and the best service for consumers,” he said. 


Wheeler indicated that his views on the importance of net neutrality have evolved as the Internet becomes a more important communication route for myriad household devices and services, not just computer connections and video. The Consumer Electronic Show this year is dominated by the so-called Internet of Things -- interconnected appliances, cars and homes. “The thing that jumps out at you is that the Internet-of-Thing kind of opportunities that are out there all over [the CES exhibition] floor, they demand open networks,” he said. “How do you make sure that pathway stays open?”

Still, Wheeler stopped short of promising that the FCC would flatly outlaw all the forms of ISP favoritism that net neutrality advocates abhor. He said his new proposal would say “no blocking, no throttling, [no] paid prioritization,” but would allow ISPs to claim that privileges given to some Web services or restrictions on others were “just and reasonable.”

“We’ve recognized that there are some instances where prioritization makes sense,” he said, but in other instances a service “can buy your way into a better position because you got deep pockets.... That we may want to look askance at.”

He declined to get specific how rules or limits might be applied, however. “You gotta wait until February,” he said, ensuring that the Feb. 5 FCC meeting will be one of the most closely followed in years.

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