FCC's Sohn: Net Net Neutrality Rules Unlikely By Year-End

Gigi Sohn, top aide to FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, said Wednesday that it was unlikely that the FCC would come up with new network neutrality rules before early next year.

That came in a panel discussion on the Diane Rehm public radio show, where Sohn defended the need for strong net neutrality rules and, potentially, preempting state laws limiting municipal broadband.

Sohn, former head of net neutrality advocacy group Public Knowledge, said the FCC was working with all possible speed. She also said reports that her boss disagreed with the President's call for Title II regs was off base and that no one should conclude from meetings with stakeholders on the issue that he is either for or against that approach.

She was reacting to a story in the Washington post on a Wheeler meeting with stakeholders that had been characterized as him not on board with President Obama's call for Title II reclassification of Internet Access. Wheeler has been looking at various approaches, but has never gone all in for Title II as the President appeared to do this week.

Also reacting to that story, current Public Knowledge President Gene Kimmelman called for clarification from the chairman. “We are shocked at disturbing and, we hope, inaccurate reports of Chairman Wheeler’s opinion of Title II and urge him to clarify his position," he said. "We also request the FCC publicly share any and all questions the agency needs answered this week to move forward with a rulemaking."

Sohn said that the FCC gets dozens of informal complaints weekly about ISP's clogging the last mile to the home from folks saying things like "I can't get my Netflix."

Sohn said that the D.C. federal court that threw out the old network neutrality rules said that ISPs were gatekeepers that had the motivation and ability to discriminate against edge providers.

Responding to the comment about Netflix complaints, Rob Atkinson  president, The Information Technology & Innovation Foundation pointed to study concluding what some ISP's have been saying, which is that Netflix created the appearance of congestion for political purposes as part of a push to make the issue of paid peering a network neutrality flashpoint in Washington.

Asked by a called whether it wasn't DARPA and the government that created the Internet, Sohn said it was a common myth that the private sector created the Internet. The Government created the Internet," she said, but then qualified that by conceding the private sector built the net, and added that she thought telcos and cable companies were doing their best to build out high-speed broadband.

Asked about the issue of preempting municipal broadband, she said the FCC would have to consider all the facts, but also that it was "looking at the possibility" of preempting state laws. The FCC currently considering petitions from Chattanooga and Wilson, N.C., to do just that.

Sohn said in both cases the cities had built out gigabit nets, but were prevented by state laws pushed by cable and telco incumbents from extending those to nearby communities "begging" for it. She said her boss was the first FCC chairman to say that there was not sufficient competition for the kind of broadband service people need today. Wheeler has said 25 Mbps per second are the new table stakes for broadband access.

Atkinson countered that it was inefficient and wasteful to support government-subsidized multiple wires, which "raises the prices" for all of us. He said some municipalities gave themselves unfair advantages, and even then some had failed, as in Burlington, Vt., and Provo, Utah, leaving taxpayers on the hook. He said that in Chattanooga, for example, the city had gotten government stimulus money to go from 100 MBps to a gig, money that would have been better spent on building out broadband to unserved areas.

Sohn fired back that "you guys love to trot out a handful of failures.” She said there were more successes than failures and that ISPs like AT&T and Comcast and the rest had used public rights of way and utility poles. She said the suggestion that it was purely private entrepreneurs who created their systems without their own government help was "just not true."

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.