Chairman Tom Wheeler didn’t say so directly, but he left little doubt that he and fellow Democrats on the FCC will stand up to cable and telco Internet providers next month by adopting net neutrality rules that redefine broadband as a regulated, communications service. ISPs have said that such a move would chill investment. But for the last 20 years the wireless industry has been regulated under so-called Title 2 rules — with provisions limiting the FCC’s ability to set prices — and it “has been monumentally successful,” Wheeler said today at the International CES conference in Las Vegas. “There is a way to do Title 2 right …A model has been set in the wireless business.”
The trade show reinforced his belief that the FCC needs to prohibit Internet service providers from playing favorites, for example by offering speedier service to some content providers over others. “The message that comes across is that the Internet of things opportunities that are out there on the floor demand open networks,” Wheeler says. “That’s the path we’re going down.” Last year a federal Appeals Court remanded net neutrality rules the FCC adopted in 2010. Justices said that the agency had overreached its authority as long as it defines the Internet as a lightly regulated information service.
Wheeler says he’ll circulate his net neutrality proposal on February 5, aiming for a vote on February 26.
President Obama urged the FCC in November to reclassify the Internet, which some analysts thought undermined Wheeler’s efforts to establish net neutrality under the present regulatory arrangement. That “makes a good headline,” Wheeler says. But “we were headed down a path headed to the same goals.” And afterward the FCC “still had a record bidding for [airwave] spectrum,” a sign that — contrary to what cable and telco broadband provider say — investors would still be eager to back the Internet growth if the FCC regulates it under Title 2 rules.
The FCC chairman gently sidestepped a question about whether he laughed when he saw comedian John Oliver’s June call for viewers to petition the agency for tough net neutrality rules, which preceded a record-setting flood of emails. Oliver said that having Wheeler — a former cable and telco lobbyist — vote on the matter “is the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.” Wheeler says that “I honest to God didn’t know what a ‘dingo’ was.” He added that his daughter prepared a montage of Wheeler playing with his three grandkids with a caption: “Would you let your kids play with a dingo?”
On another matter, Wheeler says that the FCC is about to meet individually with broadcasters “to let them know what a once in a lifetime opportunity they have” if they agree to let the agency take some of the spectrum they use and auction it for wireless broadband. Some of the proceeds would go back to station owners. Wheeler says he found it “disappointing” that the National Association of Broadcasters slowed the process by filing a suit. Still, he figures an auction can take place in early 2016. The high prices offered in recent spectrum auctions has “whet the appetite of broadcasters. What they’re sitting on is of immense value.”