FCC chairman offers his strongest endorsement yet of net neutrality

January 9

Tom Wheeler (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

The head of the Federal Communications Commission has made the most forceful defense yet of his agency's rules that prohibit Internet providers from prioritizing some types of Internet traffic over others.

In an address at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., FCC chairman Tom Wheeler argued for an enforceable set of Internet regulations that could be applied on a case-by-case basis to alleged violations of the FCC's order, which was approved in 2011.

"Public policy should protect the great driving force of the open Internet: how it allows innovation without permission," said Wheeler. "This is why it is essential that the FCC continue to maintain an open Internet and maintain the legal ability to intervene promptly and effectively in the event of aggravated circumstances."

That's the clearest statement the new chairman has made on the topic of network neutrality. Wheeler's expressed support for the policy before. But he's mostly done so in the kind of pro forma way you'd expect any bureaucrat to behave when confronted with a rule he's inherited.

Now he's saying that trusting businesses to ensure an open Internet isn't a reliable strategy by itself — and that the regulations have their own role to play in that process.

By staking out an active position on how he thinks the rules ought to work, the chairman has now indicated his willingness to defend his agency's Internet regulations on the merits. That's significant, as the FCC's net neutrality rules are currently under legal challenge by Verizon, which argues the FCC lacks the jurisdiction to regulate broadband services.

Wheeler also touched on a couple of other issues that are near and dear to tech watchers' hearts. Here's a quick rundown:

Spectrum. A major airwave auction set for 2015 would seek to encourage TV stations to give up their access to wireless spectrum. The main idea is that broadcasters would give up their airwaves, make a bunch of money from the sale, and go out of business. But Wheeler is now pushing for those broadcasters who want both the cash and to stay in operation to consider another option: sharing channels with other TV stations. More efficient broadcasting technology now makes it possible to put TV signals closer together without risk of interference, so the FCC is hoping this alternative would encourage more TV stations to participate (and make the auction a success).

In his address Thursday, Wheeler said tech companies had a part to play in encouraging TV stations to get with the program, because it would mean more opportunities for them to gain access to unlicensed spectrum — the invisible real estate that makes Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies possible. He also suggested that rather than allocate parts of the wireless spectrum for single uses, as the government used to do, the FCC should consider allowing different applications to coexist on the same part of the spectrum band — particularly in the area above 3.5 GHz.

The transition to an Internet Protocol-based phone network. Wheeler has previously signaled that he intends to speed up a nationwide upgrade to fiber optic phone networks. In Thursday's remarks, the chairman signaled that the FCC would be soliciting proposals in its open meeting on Jan. 30 from phone companies to establish test sites for the transition.

Looking ahead to a major spectrum auction scheduled for 2015 that would encourage TV stations to give up their access to the airwaves in exchange for going out of business, Wheeler tried to convince waffling broadcasters that they can have it both ways.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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