D.C. Reacts to Wheeler Title II Signals

Fans and foes of tough net neutrality rules were quick to react to the continuing evolution of FCC chairman Tom Wheeler from a Sec. 706 approach to some form of reclassification of Internet access under Title II common carrier regulations.

In a Q&A with Consumer Electronics Association president Gary Shapiro at the CES show in Las Vegas Wednesday (Jan. 7), Wheeler signaled that the FCC was highly likely to adopt some variation of Title II. He also confirmed that he was scheduling a vote on the new rules at the Feb. 26 meeting.

Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), who has pushed for Title II as a House member and Senator, was unsurprisingly upbeat about the news. “I am pleased to hear that Chairman Wheeler is being guided by Title II on the FCC’s path toward new open Internet rules," he said. "The best way to prevent the broadband behemoths from erecting online tollbooths and undermining the openness of the Internet is to reclassify broadband under Title II. Net neutrality is just a fancy term for nondiscrimination, and it is the democratic foundation of the Internet that the FCC must preserve in order to maintain online freedom."

He also pointed out that next week marks a year since a D.C. federal court threw out the old rules.

“I commend Chairman Wheeler for his commitment to move forward and vote on strong net neutrality rules at the February FCC open meeting. The Commission must act quickly to ensure the Internet remains free and open for commerce and communications for future generations," he said.

"Chairman Wheeler appears to have heard the demands of the millions of Internet users who have called for real Net Neutrality protections. The FCC’s past decisions to put its oversight authority on ice resulted in Net Neutrality being under constant threat," said Craig Aaron, president of Free Press. "Wheeler now realizes that it’s best to simply follow the law Congress wrote and ignore the bogus claims of the biggest phone and cable companies and their well-financed front groups."

Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.), who co-sponsored the reintroduction of a bill this week banning paid prioritization, was happy to hear a vote was forthcoming.

"I am  pleased that the FCC has announced its intention to vote on new net neutrality rules. In December, I urged the Commission to finalize rules to keep the Internet free and open for business, and I urge the FCC to use this vote as an opportunity to reclassify broadband Internet as a telecommunications service, and to put in place commonsense rules that protect net neutrality.”

Title II fan Michael Copps was not ready to start celebrating just yet.

“After years of false starts, the FCC just may be poised to enshrine Open Internet protections once and for all. It is encouraging to see Chairman Wheeler heeding the call of the millions of Americans who have spoken so clearly for rules under Title II of the Telecommunications Act that ensure the Internet remains a platform for competition, innovation and free expression," said Copps, special adviser to Common Cause and himself a former FCC commissioner and chairman.

"The chairman has signaled the commission's intent, and we're eager to see his plan as the devil is always in the details -- such things as the extent of forbearance, which could undermine the Open Internet," said Copps. "So it’s not yet time for victory celebrations or champagne toasts. With the Commission's final vote still weeks away, Big Cable and Big Telecom will pull out every stop to derail this progress, so Open Internet advocates must remain vigilant and keep pressure on policy makers in Washington.”

Fans of light-touch regs were not celebrating, however.

"Common carrier rules for telephone service crafted in 1934 should not be applied to the hyper-competitive broadband Internet market in 2015," said a spokesman for the American Cable Association. "A Title II regulatory regime will cut off investment and end up doing more harm than good."

CTIA: The Wireless Association took issue with Wheeler's suggestion that the Title II regime for wireless telephony was the model for putting wireless and wired broadband under common carrier regs without stifling investment, growth and innovation.

"CTIA and its member companies want, and continue to support, an open Internet. Comparisons to the regulatory framework for mobile voice are misplaced and irrelevant," said CTIA president Meredith Attwell Baker. "Congress created a regulatory regime for mobile voice under Section 332 and Title II. Congress also created a separate regulatory regime – explicitly outside Title II – for other services like mobile broadband. The FCC cannot now re-write Congress’s intent."

Sen. Dean Heller (R-Nev.), a member of the Senate Commerce Committee, which shares oversight of communications issues, warned the FCC to back off.

“From my ongoing conversations with [new Commerce Committee] Chairman [John] Thune [R-S.D.] and other colleagues, it is clear to me that bipartisan interest exists to pursue legislation that clearly addresses potential harms to an open Internet without creating onerous regulations. I believe the FCC would be wise to let elected officials on Capitol Hill continue working before proceeding to any vote on a new order in February.”

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.