New year brings new hope for Net neutrality supporters

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reverses course, makes a strong statement in support of Title II regulation and against fast lanes

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Amid all the smart belts, cookers, and baby pacifiers at CES this week, there was also the promise of a smart Net neutrality proposal from the Federal Communications Commission.

In a discussion with Consumer Electronics Association President Gary Shapiro, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler stated there will be no room for blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization in the recommendation he will bring before the commission on Feb. 5.

What a difference a year makes.

This time last year, Verizon reveled as an appeals court struck down the FCC's Net neutrality rules, declaring the agency had overreached its authority in barring broadband providers from slowing select Web traffic. In the aftermath of the decision, Wheeler rolled over and proposed new rules that supported the idea of Internet fast lanes. It looked very much like the FCC chairman was returning to his roots as a lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry.

ISPs were delighted. But an unprecedented 4 million public comments -- overwhelmingly opposed to the proposal -- moved Wheeler to waffle in favor of a "hybrid approach" to Net neutrality. The agency, he suggested, would permit paid prioritization of traffic -- with FCC monitoring -- but would not reclassify broadband as a public utility subject to tighter regulation under Title II of the Communication Act.

When President Obama came out staunchly in support of Title II reclassification in November, Wheeler pushed back, declaring, "I am an independent agency" and explaining how the FCC had moved on from a Title II-only plan

What a difference two months makes.

Wheeler told a CES audience this week that he and Obama are "both pulling in the same direction for no blocking, no throttling, and no paid prioritization. We're both headed down the same path for the same goals." Wheeler added that "there is a way to do Title II right," and in particular cited the sections of Title II that include requirements for reasonable rates and practices, a prohibition against discrimination in rates and practices, and the establishment of a complaint process.  

This same approach was used to craft Section 332 of the Communications Act, which states that wireless carriers should be regulated under Title II but exempts them from the Act's more onerous and inappropriate provisions. Wheeler noted that "it just so happens that 20 years ago I was the guy that negotiated on behalf of the wireless industry to establish Section 332."

Are Net neutrality opponents' worst fears about to come true?

Taxphobic Grover Norquist this week penned an opinion piece that predictably warned a decision to reclassify broadband under Title II would trigger new taxes and penalize Web users. Telecom companies have loudly proclaimed that regulation would impose such an onerous burden they would be forced to raise prices or forgo future investments.

But Wheeler dismissed it as mostly talk. "After the president said what he said about Title II, we still had a record bidding for spectrum from ISPs and continued announcements about new gigabit plans going out," he noted.

As Ars Technica pointed out in its deconstruction of industry objections to Title II, "While broadband providers typically offer doom-and-gloom scenarios when arguing against Title II, sometimes they go off script, especially when talking to investors."  Last month Verizon's CFO told investors that Title II would not affect how the company invests in its wireline and wireless networks; Time Warner Cable's CEO conceded even Title II proponents are not pushing for rates regulation; Charter Communications' CEO has stated that "forbearance done properly could work, and we think that the fundamental objective seems reasonable;" and even AT&T has told the FCC that Title II with forbearance is an "unqualified regulatory success story."

Perhaps come February the previously unthinkable will happen: The FCC will propose Title II regulation of broadband -- and the sky won't fall.

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