In a farewell speech as FCC Chairman, Tom Wheeler offered a full throated defense of his net neutrality initiative calling it “rooted in reality, not ideology” adding that “it is time to keep moving forward. It must not be taken away.”
Wheeler, who President Obama appointed to the FCC in 2013, plans to leave on January 20.
Agency watchers believe that the Trump administration will try to overturn the open internet rules that helped to make Wheeler — a former telco and cable lobbyist — an unexpected hero to consumer and open internet advocates but angered the largest companies that the FCC regulates including Comcast, AT&T, and Verizon.
The net neutrality rules bar internet service providers from offering speedier or more robust transmissions to programmers they like vs competitors. For example, they would outlaw AT&T from providing wireless customers with a better viewing experience for DirecTV Now — which it owns — than for rivals such as Sling TV or Hulu.
Opponents of the net neutrality rules say that the FCC overstepped its authority, adding that it could chill investment in the internet.
Wheeler told the Aspen Institute that “all the press reports seem to indicate that the new Commission will choose an ideologically-based course” to overturn policies that are “pro competition, not pro-incumbent.”
He adds: “We are at a fork in that road. One path leads forward. The other leads back to re-litigating solutions that are demonstrably working…. Looking backward takes away existing protections and throws into question ISP expansion into edge activities.”
He noted that at a meeting yesterday with President-elect Trump, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson talked up the big investments his company has made over the last few years.
“This, of course, includes the two years since adoption of the Open Internet rules,” Wheeler says. “A recent report pegged overall network investment at $76 billion for 2015, which is an increase from the year I arrived at the Commission.”
Indeed, the FCC chief says that since the net neutrality rules passed overall “network investment is up, investment in innovative services is up, and ISPs revenues – and stock prices – are at record levels. So, where’s the fire? Other than the desires of a few ISPs to be free of meaningful oversight, why the sudden rush to undo something that is demonstrably working?”
Wheeler warned that the two largest telcos have an incentive to tip the scales in favor of their own programming services — which he sees in AT&T and Verizon’s decisions to waive data charges when they’re used by the companies’ wireless subscribers.
That forces “consumers to pay data charges for competitors,” he says.
The paradox is that AT&T “in its role as an edge video provider” benefits from net neutrality rules: It “is assured access to the broadband networks of Comcast and Charter for its competitive cable-like DirecTV Now service, it is proof that the Open Internet rule is working. One only has to remember the interconnection and porting debates that hindered the access of over-the-top (OTT) video providers pre-Open-Internet-rule to appreciate the importance of an open Internet to everyone – even its opponents.”
That’s important, he says, because “it shows how the Open Internet order is successful simply by being watchful. There has been no ex ante rate regulation. The simple fact that the FCC was the referee on the field ready to act if necessary has meant the game has been played fairly.”