FCC's Wheeler: We must balance Internet openness with operators' return on investment in networks

BOULDER, Colo.--FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said that the draft net neutrality proposal he circulated to commissioners last week will forgo sections of Title II of the Telecommunications Act that are a threat to network investment. In other words, "no rate regulation, no unbundling and no tariffs or new taxes," he said.

Wheeler, who was speaking at the Silicon Flatirons "Digital Broadband Migration" event held here at the University of Colorado law school, did not divert from his prepared remarks, nor did he take questions from the audience, which primarily consisted of law students and telecom attorneys.

During his speech, Wheeler emphasized that when this use of "light-touch Title II" was implemented some 20 years ago for mobile voice service, it triggered what he characterized as a "massive investment of almost $300 billion" in the telecom industry. Wheeler also noted that as the head of the CTIA, the wireless industry's lobbying association, he played a key role in asking regulators to apply Title II to mobile voice some 20 years ago.

In keeping with his past remarks, Wheeler also said that he had originally believed that the FCC could assure an open Internet by applying a "commercial reasonableness" test to determine the appropriate behavior of ISPs. However, he added that after listening to consumers and others he became convinced that the untested "commercially reasonable" standard would probably be interpreted to just mean what is reasonable for ISPs commercial deals. That's why he changed his course and included the Title II provision to the proposed net neutrality draft that he circulated to commissioners last week. 

However, a House oversight committee on Friday said it was launching a probe into whether the White House improperly influenced the FCC on its planned net neutrality rules. President Barack Obama late last year urged the FCC to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II, a position Wheeler has said he was coming around to before Obama's statement in November and which Wheeler eventually adopted.

Wheeler also reiterated that the net neutrality rules will apply to mobile broadband networks for the first time. One of the particularly controversial aspects of the rules is that wireless carriers would have less flexibility to deploy "reasonable network management" practices on their networks. The rules would also put future uses of zero-rating and sponsored data programs under the microscope to ensure they are not harming consumers or content providers. The FCC is expected to vote on the proposal during the Feb. 26 FCC meeting.

Wheeler's draft order was a big departure from the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules that largely exempted wireless carriers. The commission has argued that 55 recent research indicates that 55 percent of Americans' Internet traffic now runs on mobile devices, and that there are now 140 million LTE users, up from just 70,000 in 2010.

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