Sending his strongest signal yet that he will push for far more stringent net neutrality rules, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler indicated Wednesday that he's leaning in favor of imposing utility-style Title II regulations on US Internet service providers.
Speaking before a packed conference room at the CES show in Las Vegas, Wheeler did not actually say that he will call for reclassifying ISPs under the Title II section of the Communications Act when the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) votes on the issue next month. But according to several press reports from the convention, he did say he has been shifting toward proposing stronger net neutrality rules on ISPs since the summer, even before President Obama came out in favor of Title II regulations nearly two months ago. (See Obama Backs Net Neutrality, Stuns Industry.)
In a Q&A session on stage, Wheeler made a case for Title II regulatory treatment of ISPs and took pains to knock down the major arguments that have been advanced against Title II, contending that it would not hamper investment in broadband networks and innovation. Further, he appeared to back away from his previous hybrid net neutrality proposal, arguing that it didn't go far enough to safeguard consumers from potential harm.
With the FCC now slated to vote on new net neutrality rules at its Feb. 26 meeting and Democrats and Republicans in Congress already lining up opposing bills, Wheeler declined to say exactly what he plans to propose. But he left little doubt among both net neutrality supporters and opponents about where he plans to come down on the issue, prompting another round of dueling tweets and press releases in Washington, D.C. circles. (See Democrats Head Off GOP on Net Neutrality Bill.)
"We're going to propose rules that say no blocking, no throttling, no paid prioritization, all that list of issues, and that there is a yardstick against which behavior should be measured," Wheeler said, as quoted by the Los Angeles Times. He argued that the best standard for judging just and reasonable behavior by ISPs is the "just and reasonable" standard under Title II.
If Wheeler goes ahead as expected and proposes Title II regulations, it will undoubtedly set off another political firestorm in the nation's capital, potentially engulfing other FCC moves in the communications sector. It may also impact the Commission's consideration of the two big media-telecom mergers now on its plate, namely Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK)'s proposed takeover of Time Warner Cable Inc. (NYSE: TWC) and AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)s proposed buyout of DirecTV Group Inc. (NYSE: DTV).
Further, the FCC's adoption of strong net neutrality rules could throw a huge monkey wrench into the gigabit rollout plans of major US broadband providers. AT&T has already threatened to stop its rollout of 1 Gig service if net neutrality becomes the law of the land.
— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading