FCC’s Wheeler Warms Up to Obama’s Wishes on Net Neutrality

The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission hinted on Wednesday that forthcoming rules will reclassify broadband Internet service as a public utility

Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler.

Photographer: Jim Watson/AFP via Getty Images

Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, hinted on Wednesday that forthcoming rules will reclassify broadband Internet service as a public utility. The FCC’s approach to this issue has been the subject of much speculation and hand-wringing among tech policy circles in the past year, with the primary question being whether Wheeler would reclassify broadband service under Title II of the Communications Act. While he didn’t explicitly say this would be his approach, Wheeler’s comments at the Consumer Electronics Show are the strongest indication yet that he will do so.

Internet service providers have claimed that reclassification under Title II would dry up investment in the Internet. As recently as early 2014, there seemed to be little chance this would actually happen. But the outlines of the debate on the issue have steadily shifted, culminating in President Obama’s call in November for the “strongest possible rules” under Title II.

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While the president’s wishes have no formal impact on the FCC, his statement put pressure on Wheeler. On Wednesday, Wheeler indicated he was leaning in that direction even before Obama’s comments. The FCC chairman dates his own evolution on the issue to last summer, he said, when he came to realize that Title II “has the best protections.” Mobile networks have been regulated in this manner for two decades, he explained on Wednesday, and companies have continued to invest billions. The key was to exempt the networks from certain requirements, an approach known as forbearance. “A model has been set in the wireless business that had billions of dollars in investment,” he said.

When it first appeared the FCC might move in this direction, AT&T announced a pause of its investment in fiber-optic networks—a move the FCC didn’t seem to appreciate. Wheeler said that many smaller Internet providers had actually contacted the FCC to support reclassification.

While much of the debate over net neutrality has been about the legal authority through which rules are implemented, the real goal is to keep Internet providers from giving some types of Web traffic a faster path to users than other types. For consumer advocates and tech startups, the big worry is a paid prioritization framework under which companies could pay for faster service on broadband networks. Wheeler, Obama, and even opponents of reclassification such as Comcast all oppose this kind of behavior. In his remarks at CES, however, Wheeler left the door open to treating traffic differently in certain instances, like emergencies or for medical services.

The FCC chairman didn’t talk about the specifics of the rules being written, which he plans to distribute to the agency’s other commissioners on Feb. 5 before a vote on Feb. 26. Internet providers and other opponents of reclassification have questioned the legality of reclassification, and it’s virtually certain that rules attempting to follow through on it would be challenged in court.