FCC chair calls for ‘just and reasonable’ rules for broadband

Agency vote on open Internet plan is now set for Feb. 26

LAS VEGAS -- FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler on Wednesday called for an open Internet that protects innovators and consumers while also making sure Internet service providers (ISPs) retain economic incentives to continue building better networks.

Wheeler told an audience at International CES here that he will give the other four members of the Federal Communications Commission his specific recommendations about the open Internet debate on Feb. 5, with a commission vote set for Feb. 26.

Open Internet reform has provoked unprecedented public interest, Wheeler said, generating four million comments to the FCC last fall. ISPs have lined up to oppose recommendations made by President Barack Obama in November to treat them as common communications carriers under Title II of the Telecommunications Act.

While the FCC is an independent agency, Wheeler said he agrees with Obama that websites shouldn't be blocked and services shouldn't be slowed by carriers -- and that no carrier offer priority service with a payment.

"When the president said he was for Title II, there was an effort made to say that Wheeler and the president were pulling in opposite directions, but we're both pulling in the same direction for no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization," Wheeler said. "We're both headed down the same path for the same goals."

The question Wheeler and the full FCC face now is how to create a set of goals that places "just and reasonable" rules on service providers, he added.

While not revealing his plan, Wheeler added, "There is a way to do Title II right that says many parts of Title II are inappropriate and would thwart [network] investment."

He named three sections of Title II that should be left out -- Sections 201, 202 and 208 -- and promised, "Clearly, we are going to come out with a gold standard" for an open Internet.

He said the approach he favors won't force unneeded regulations on ISPs, as they fear. "We'll propose rules that say no blocking, no throttling and no paid prioritization and add that there is a yardstick against which [service provider] behavior should be measured, and that yardstick is 'just and reasonable'" actions by carriers.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at CES Matt Hamblen

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler answered questions about his open Internet plans at CES after he spoke.

When asked by Consumer Electronics Association CEO Gary Shapiro in an on-stage interview if there's going to be a way for the FCC to allow carriers to give network priority to health information over pornography, Wheeler said he was "not going into details of what our paid prioritization is.... There are instances where priority makes a whole heck of a lot of sense, so you need to be careful."

He mentioned that network priority should matter, especially in granting users network access in national emergencies, for example. "There are instances where prioritization makes sense, but many others where [carriers] can buy their way into a better position because of deep pockets that we want to look askance at," Wheeler said. "What we're hoping to put in place is a 'just and reasonable' standard and then say [when reviewing a specific request by a carrier] is that just and reasonable?"

One reason to favor keeping economic incentives in place for ISPs is to help Americans gain more access to broadband from more providers. While 80% of Americans have broadband with speeds of 25Mbps for downloads, only 25% of them have a choice of more than one service provider.

"Hopefully we can overcome that," Wheeler said.

At a separate panel discussion at CES with the four commissioners of the FCC held after Wheeler spoke, Commissioner Mignon Clyburn said she's interested in using open Internet deliberations to reach rules that protect average Internet users.

"Getting it right is the only option," she said. "What drives me in this is that big companies have lawyers and lobbyists, while the little guys only have their texts," she said, referring to the barrage of short messages that been aired on various social networks over the issue.

FCC Commissioner Ajit Pai urged the FCC to remain independent of the president's views and said that the open Internet could be jeopardized with Title II rules Obama has backed. Noting that Title II rules were intended to regulate wired telephones from the 1930s, Pai added that "there's no way the wired telephone is as innovative as the Internet."

Meredith Attwell Baker, CEO of CTIA, the nation's wireless trade association, issued a statement attacking one of Wheeler's suggestions to regulate mobile broadband similar to the way the FCC has regulated mobile voice.

"The FCC cannot now re-write Congress's intent.... The Chairman cannot now use the same deregulatory tool [used for mobile voice] to extend regulation and government intrusion where it has never been before," she said.

Copyright © 2015 IDG Communications, Inc.

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