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FCC chief on net neutrality: ‘The big dogs are going to sue, regardless’

(Brian Fung / The Washington Post)

Right now, followers of the net neutrality debate really want to know two things. First, when will the Federal Communications Commission unveil its new rules? And second, how aggressive will they be?

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is refusing to be tied down on either count. But on Friday, Wheeler hinted that he knows the stakes.

"Look, the big dogs are going to sue, regardless of what comes out," he told reporters, referring to the large Internet service providers who have threatened to challenge any strong rules by the agency in court. "We need to make sure that we have sustainable rules."

The FCC had initially planned a vote next month to limit Internet service providers' ability to slow down or speed up Web sites, and had been working vigorously behind the scenes to build support for a compromise proposal addressing competing concerns from content companies and the telecom industry. Those plans were dashed, however, when President Obama announced he wanted the FCC to move ahead with stronger rules. Now the way forward is less clear, and the agency has kicked the vote into next year. But Wheeler declined to say how long the delay would be.

"I want to move forward on open Internet rules with dispatch," he said. "I also want to have open Internet rules that are sustained. And that's the process we're going through."

The FCC's net neutrality rules have been the subject of extensive litigation. In January, a federal court threw out much of the FCC's original rules, arguing they overstepped the agency's legal authority.

The key takeaway from Friday is Wheeler's signal that a lawsuit is inevitable. He evidently believes there will be no compromising with the broadband providers, and nothing the FCC does will prevent a legal challenge. Does this mean Wheeler is growing less convinced of his middle-ground strategy?

Some analysts have argued that Obama's statement on net neutrality  "boxed in" Wheeler, creating momentum for strong regulations. Wheeler's statements could be consistent with that theory. But the FCC has always been concerned with making its net neutrality rules bulletproof (otherwise, what's the point?). And in that light, it doesn't really matter what the Internet providers do, lawsuit or no.