Meet Tom Wheeler, Net Neutrality Procrastinator-in-Chief

When it's time to stand up and be counted, FCC Commissioner Tom Wheeler pulls up a chair and sits down.

In a bold decision May 15, the FCC voted 3-2 along partisan lines to go ahead and think about maybe passing its proposed net neutrality rules. The rules are a masterpiece of befuddlement, saying carriers can and can't give companies preferential Internet access. Wheeler tried to reassure net neutrality proponents that the FCC won't allow a two-tier Internet to develop, prioritizing traffic for big companies that pay for it while putting everything else in the slow lane. And yet that's precisely what the FCC's rules do -- allow carriers to charge companies for higher-speed Internet access. (See FCC Split on Net Neutrality Plans .)

Wheeler approaches decision-making with the enthusiasm of a child facing going to school on a sunny June day. And yet Wheeler is bold and decisive compared with fellow commissioners Jessica Rosenworcel and Ajit Pai, who wanted to delay the vote. Rosenworcel warned about "rushing headlong" into a decision, as if 12 years isn't enough talk. That's how long ago Columbia University law processor Tim Wu articulated the principles of net neutrality. Maybe Rosenworcel thinks we should talk about the issue for another 12 years?

Or maybe 12 years isn't long enough? Net Neutrality is based on regulations governing telegraphs dating back to 1860. Is 154 years long enough to talk about an issue?

Prior to the May 15 vote, Wheeler set out to reassure net neutrality advocates that the FCC would abide by a US Court of Appeals decision that Internet fast lanes could not be "commercially unreasonable." And yet this is no protection at all -- neither companies nor consumers have any way of knowing what's reasonable or unreasonable. Developing guidelines for what's commercially reasonable will require still more time. Yay! More meetings!

Wheeler's motivation is clear. He wants to avoid a decision. He wants to not handle net neutrality at all, run out his term as chairman of the FCC, and let the whole thing be somebody else's problem. He's following a political strategy made popular by the governor in the movie The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas: "Dance a Little Sidestep:"

Wheeler can, of course, point out that three previous FCC chairs also tried to kick this can down the road -- two succeeded and the third, immediate predecessor Julius Genachowski, passed rules that were immediately overturned on appeal. But Wheeler, in his role as advocate for first, the largest wireless industry lobby, and then, the largest cable lobby group, already lived through those debates -- shouldn't he know where he stands by now?

In his prevaricating, Wheeler has managed to tick off both sides. Democrats and net neutrality defenders are angry that Wheeler's FCC doesn't go far enough, while Republican free-marketers denounce any attempt to regulate the Internet. It takes a rare talent to tick off both sides of a polarizing issue. I'm reminded of the clueless journalist in the Carl Hiaasen novel Tourist Season who proposed opinion columns with headlines like, "Vietnam: Time to Try Again?" and "Abortion: What's the Big Deal?"

Carriers need a decision on net neutrality. The decision needs to be one that permits investment in infrastructure and innovation, while preserving people's rights to free expression and startup innovation. But even a bad decision is better than the current climate of uncertainty, which has existed as well under three previous FCC chairs.

One-hundred fifty-four years is long enough to spend making up your mind.

— Mitch Wagner, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profileFollow me on Facebook, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading. Got a tip about SDN or NFV? Send it to [email protected]

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mhhf1ve 6/6/2014 | 2:22:25 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... Seven, do you see any value in an internet search engine? I don't pay google for my searches, but there are ads. And YouTube has ads, too. Have you given up entirely on YouTube since they added ads? If not, then you are paying for the service with your attention and marketing potential.
brookseven 6/6/2014 | 1:49:41 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... mhhf1ve,

How much a month are you willing to pay for YouTube?  That is the question you have to answer to put a value on it.

Let me use an analogy.  Do you go to parks that charge entrance fees?  For example, I have been to Yosemite and paid to enter.  I more often go to local parks that are "free".  Of course, they aren't free because I am paying the city to own and maintain them.  So, there is some value but it is small or as I would put it negligible.  

That is the way I see YouTube.  Do I really need to have every Chive, Funny or Die, or Tosh.0 clip up there?  No.  Is it fun to find the oddball clip.  Sure.  But if YouTube was deleted, it would not cause me to go find an equivalent service that I pay for.

Again, I think you need to think of the phone analogy.  You paid your local company.  When you made a long distance call, they would pay the tolls to your long distance provider and the terminating phone company.  If all call centers came out of 1 place, then that phone company would owe the others a lot of money.  Right now a big number (30% is a standard notion) of traffic is coming from one source.  Cogent can't expect that to be viewed as a standard symmetrical peering arrangement.  I would expect them to get a bill and pass it on to Netflix.  Netflix chose to bypass Cogent in one case.  Probably cheaper for them.

The bigger issue to me is only with Comcast as AT&T, Verizon, etc....own no content.  Only Comcast does.  I am surprised that the FCC has not forced them to drop NBC-Universal, like the way Studios has to get out of the theater business.

mhhf1ve 6/6/2014 | 1:02:33 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... I might add that I can also understand why the FCC would do nothing. In fact, I'm also concerned about the unintended consequences of the FCC making new regulations for the internet.
mhhf1ve 6/6/2014 | 12:58:49 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... Seven, I'm actually fine with companies paying for faster speeds, but I also see a danger that --without any regulation-- ISPs will sneakily force every distributor to pay a non-competitive toll. I fully disagree with you that YouTube content has no value. And I don't want an internet that would kill off a service like YouTube because the ISPs would be able to charge an incredible toll for YouTube's content to be delivered reliably.
brookseven 6/5/2014 | 7:39:32 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... mhhf1ve,

The Cable Industry pays BILLIONS to the content owners like Disney for the privilege of putting in the fastest of fast lanes - an HD channel + an SD channel for their content.  So, why do you think that suddenly that Disney is going to pay anybody?  They have content that people want.  We know that because we pay for it.

Youtube has no value because it essentially has worthless content.  Free content is worth exactly what you pay for it.  Nothing.  If there was value, we would pay to watch it.

Netflix is already trying to get into the content ownership business because of this.  They know that as a middle man, they have very minimal value.  The Internet is working real hard to eliminate most middle men.  The only people that needs middle men are small players who can't keep up.  

I agree you have the right to put content up and distribute it.  If you are Ernest Hemingway or Steven Spielberg or Metallica then you get to get paid for doing so.  If you are not, then expect to have to pay a middleman.  

Next thing to think about.  So, are you going to force cable tv systems to eliminate all their channels and deploy all their bandwidth for net neutral internet?  If not, you have already lost the thought that all content is created equal.  Disney, Fox, Sony, Viacom, etc. are all getting paid to have the best possible fast lane created for them.  

Now let's go to the Title II idea.  So, in the phone world assymetric traffic requires compensation between carriers.  So, we would need to put a system like that in place for the ISPs.  You okay with that?  Oh, wait....that is what you are complaining about already.  Now, I like the Title II idea but I am just saying that I can understand the notion of not doing anything.

mhhf1ve 6/5/2014 | 4:31:05 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... So Disney has leverage, and netflix does not. So netflix has no value? There's a bit of a leap of logic there that doesn't quite make sense. Plenty of consumers pay for netflix and find value in the service. But there are other entities that might be harmed by a non-neutral internet. YouTube doesn't have the same leverage as Disney does-- is it also a worthless middle man? Are content owners the only entities that have the right to equal expression on the internet?
Mitch Wagner 6/5/2014 | 3:50:19 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... mhhf1ve - He can justify it by saying that even a small minority can generate a massive flood of feedback. And that they're all just fickle and following what Stephen Colbert says and don't care deeply about the issues. Or that the industry voices understand the technology and business needs better. 

A cynic would say that the floods of people who hit the FCC website aren't campaign contributors, and that money is what talks in Washington.
brookseven 6/5/2014 | 3:37:36 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going...  

Let Comcast ask Disney for streaming money and see what happens.  My guess is the cost of EPSN goes to $1B per home served.  Then Comcast gets on their knees and begs for mercy.

In other words, be a content owner - don't be a middle man.  The value of being a middle man like Netflix is essentlally 0.


mhhf1ve 6/5/2014 | 2:50:55 PM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... Nothing is broken? So it's just fine for comcast to require video streaming companies (besides netflix) to pay for faster delivery? What if search engines needed to pay more for reliable connections? Where do the tolls end?
brookseven 6/5/2014 | 12:40:41 AM
Re: The public commenting period is still going... Mhhf1ve, What happened recently was that the courts left that as the only option for regulating Internet Service. The thing is that the change to use Title II is a one way street. Right now, as far as I can tell, nothing is broken. So, why make the switch now? To protect Netflix? Other than that, Hulu will never have that problem. It will end up the other way around. ISPs will pay Hulu for the privilege of delivering their content. This is why Netflix is trying to change to a content maker. Remember content ALWAYS gets paid. Content has always gotten paid by al distribution channels and always will. Aggregators (Netflix) are just middle men. Seven
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