FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler and other commissioners went back through the looking glass today to testify at House Subcommittee on Communications and Technology — the third consecutive day of largely hostile questioning following the agency”s adoption of tough net neutrality rules. Chairman Greg Walden (R-Oregon) sought to make it more than a tongue lashing: Shortly before the hearing he offered up a bill that would freeze the FCC budget for four years.
Walden, a former broadcaster, led today’s attack re-raising arguments also covered in previous hearings. He charged that regulators worked “behind closed doors with the president to bypass the administrative process.” He also dismissed the 4 million messages the agency received, largely supporting vigorous open Internet rules, as “click-bait emails that interest groups can generate” They allegedly led Wheeler and his colleagues to be “carried away by politically generated populist furor.”
GOP committee members focused on the possibility that the net neutrality rules might lead to regulation of broadband rates. Commissioner Ajit Pai, one of the FCC’s two Republicans, said that the order “explicitly opens the door” to challenges if someone deems a rate not just or reasonable. “It’s ultimately up to the caprice of any commission.”
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Wheeler says he hopes somebody files that kind of a complaint — which has not been raised in the 22 years the FCC had a similar authority over rural wireless carriers. “There will be a process that will look at that and develop a record that would make it very clear that the FCC is not in the consumer rate regulation business,” he says.
Pai countered that there’s more competition in wireless, and that investment in that industry was driven by smartphones and the burgeoning market for mobile broadband.
The chairman added that the open Internet rules would not bar service providers from establishing multiple rates based on usage.
They also might lower cable TV rates, especially as video providers begin to offer Web-based streaming services. “That’s why the Internet has to be open, so there are alternatives for people.”
The commissioners said that they expect cable and telco Internet providers to raise a legal challenge the FCC order. “The big dogs have promised they’re going to do it, and I take them at their word,” Wheeler says.
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