FCC Chairman Comes Out Hitting for Net Neutrality

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler this past week took the bold step of revealing that his agency intends to invoke its legal authority to regulate broadband Internet service as a public utility. This move was immediately cheered by Net Neutrality backers, but it has also raised the hackles of Internet service providers like Verizon, which successfully challenged a previous FCC Net Neutrality bid.

This time, however, Wheeler has come up with a winning strategy. And his fellow FCC commissioners will no doubt approve of the plan when they meet later this month.

“Using the FCC’s Title II authority, I am submitting to my colleagues the strongest open Internet protections ever proposed by the FCC,” Mr. Wheeler wrote in a Wired editorial. “These enforceable, bright-line rules will ban paid prioritization, and the blocking and throttling of lawful content and services. I propose to fully apply—for the first time ever—those bright-line rules to mobile broadband.”

The Net Neutrality debate is simply stated, but it’s drawn some emotional responses on both sides of the fence.

Proponents of Net Neutrality argue that Internet service providers should be required by law to treat all data on the Internet equally, and not be able to lower speeds for those who can’t pay higher prices. Opponents, which of course include Internet service providers, would like to establish business relationships with content providers so they can earn extra revenues by assuring certain levels of service via so-called “fast lanes.” And today, carriers such as Verizon have lucrative contracts with companies such as Netflix, which ensure that Netflix’s users don’t suffer mysterious drop-outs while watching movies and TV shows on busy nights. Others, watching Netflix on Internet “slow lanes,” can see frequent outages and lower-quality video.

Wheeler and the FCC are firmly in the Net Neutrality camp, correctly pointing out that these exclusive contracts will harm innovation by raising prices so much that only established services can afford the bills. And after failing to reach agreements with carriers and other opponents of Net Neutrality since 2010, the agency has been seeking to enact some form of oversight for the past few years. And Wheeler has a backer in president Obama, who personally asked the FCC to adopt “the strongest possible rules” on Net Neutrality.

Wheeler’s latest proposal rests on Title II of the Communications Act of 1934, a federal law that is the basis for the FCC’s oversight of so-called “common carriers,” including telephone providers. Basically, Wheeler will add Internet service to the FCC’s legal oversight via Title II, giving it the legal power to regulate Internet service providers. And then it will prevent these firms from running roughshod over innovative by prohibiting Internet “fast lanes” and “slow lanes.”

Wheeler is also addressing industry concerns about the antiquated law by proposing to update Title II for this new age of telecommunications.

“To preserve incentives for broadband operators to invest in their networks, my proposal will modernize Title II, tailoring it for the 21st century, in order to provide returns necessary to construct competitive networks,” Wheeler explains. “For example, there will be no rate regulation, no tariffs, no last-mile unbundling. Over the last 21 years, the wireless industry has invested almost $300 billion under similar rules, proving that modernized Title II regulation can encourage investment and competition.”

“The internet must be fast, fair and open,” he concludes. “The proposal I present to the [FCC] commission will ensure the internet remains open, now and in the future, for all Americans.”