FCC chair likely to take Obama’s lead on net neutrality

Reuters / Thomas Peter
Speaking at an electronics show, the United States’ top telecom regulator dismissed complaints that tougher regulations would discourage providers from upgrading their networks, seemingly indicating he will back tough net neutrality regulations.

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler told audiences at the Consumer Electronics Show show in Las Vegas that net neutrality proposals do not currently go far enough to protect consumers. Policy analysts took that as a hint that Wheeler is leaning towards President Barack Obama’s position on net neutrality, calling for Title II regulations for broadband providers that would regulate them as if they were utilities.

"There was an effort made to say that Wheeler and the president were pulling in opposite directions on this, which made for good headlines, but wasn't exactly the reality,” said Wheeler. “We're both pulling in the same direction which is no blocking, no throttling of applications...and transparency on how do we get there."

Wheeler said that Title II reclassification would not harm investment, and that he was moving in that direction. He also said the commercial reasonableness test that he previously proposed was flawed – that test would have scrutinized deals struck between internet providers and content companies such as Netflix in order to speed up services to customers. If they passed the test, the deals would have been approved, potentially creating the so-called “internet fast lanes” prioritizing service for those who paid more.

The FCC has been working for nearly a year on new rules governing how Internet Service Providers (ISPs) manage web traffic on their networks. Cable service companies don’t want more regulations or reclassification. Internet users have been pressing for broadband service to be treated like a utility, and for web traffic to remain on somewhat equal footing, disallowing ISPs to prioritize certain content.

In November, President Obama advocated for a plan more in tune with these demands after a highly successful petition with more than 105,000 signatures was posted on the White House website. Net neutrality supporters, including Obama, want the FCC to reclassify ISPs as “common carriers,” like utility companies, giving the agency regulatory tools to promote net neutrality.

Under the hybrid” proposal previously being considered by the FCC, the plan would separate broadband into two distinct services: a retail one, in which consumers would pay broadband providers for internet access; and a back-end one, in which broadband providers would serve as the conduit for websites to distribute content.

But after his remarks at the show, it appears Wheeler is leaning towards regulating internet service providers more strictly, as Obama has suggested.

Wheeler said he will share his latest proposal on Feb. 5 and hold the vote on final regulations on Feb. 26.