FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

The head of the Federal Communications Commission signaled to broadband providers Wednesday that he isn't afraid of using a nuclear option to defend net neutrality.

In remarks at a cable industry conference in Los Angeles, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler reserved the right to regulate Internet service providers like phone companies, which are subject to more aggressive regulation than other types of businesses overseen by the commission.

"Reports that we are gutting the Open Internet rules are incorrect," Wheeler said. "I am here to say, 'Wait a minute.' Put away the party hats."

The FCC is weighing a proposal that would allow broadband providers to charge Internet companies for faster, smoother access to consumers. Public interest groups are criticizing the plan, saying the commission should instead regulate broadband under Title II of the Communications Act. That's the nuclear option.

So far, the commission has refrained from applying Title II, partly because it would invite a political controversy. But Wheeler wrote in a blog post Tuesday that he "won't hesitate" to use Title II if necessary, and he said the same in his remarks Wednesday.

"If someone acts to divide the Internet between 'haves' and 'have nots,' we will use every power at our disposal to stop it," Wheeler said. "I consider that to include Title II. Just because it is my strong belief that following the court’s roadmap will produce similar protections more quickly, does not mean I will hesitate to use Title II if warranted."

Under the proposal, the commission will ask the public whether the FCC should go that route. While the plan is unlikely to change substantially before it's publicly revealed in May, the explicit request for comments on Title II could mean Wheeler may be looking for political cover for Title II in the long run.