FCC Chair Hints That Broadband is Likely To Be Reclassified

Speaking at CES, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hinted that the agency could reclassify broadband as a public utility (telecommunications service). Those in opposition of such a move, fearing increased federal regulation, include the broadband industry as well as some Republican lawmakers and conservative groups. Wheeler also accused broadcasters of slowing plans for spectrum auctions. While he remains optimistic that auctions would still begin next year, he expressed disappointment “that the broadcasters have slowed things down by filing suit.”

“What broadcasters are sitting on is immensely valuable, and they have an opportunity to participate in the auction without losing the business that they are already in,” said Wheeler. “The future of the spectrum is spectrum sharing… And that’s a technology issue. How can we have successful sharing?”

Dennis Wharton, EVP communications for the National Association of Broadcasters, who spoke to The Hollywood Reporter following Wheeler’s session, had a different take. “Our lawsuit is narrowly targeted, and we are seeking an expedited review to make it happen quickly,” he said. “If we wanted to delay the auction, we wouldn’t have put it on the fast track.”

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Regarding the reclassification of broadband, Wheeler said he would present the proposed rules in early February and call for a vote on the 26th. He refuted recent reports that he and the White House were in disagreement over the broadband reclassification, and that he was merely yielding to President Obama’s tougher stance.

“Wheeler noted sectors of the wireless network industry have been regulated under Title II of the Communications Act for years and has been ‘monumentally successful’ for the past two decades,” reports The Wall Street Journal. “Wheeler said reclassification could work, as long as broadband providers are exempted from outdated regulations.”

Meanwhile, Wheeler’s comments were met with resistance from trade groups that represent the telecoms, cable providers and wireless carriers who have concerns about increased regulation.

At CES, he addressed issues such as the throttling of applications and the potential of providers slowing down individual websites or services. He touched on the concerns of many net neutrality advocates who would like to see a ban on paid prioritization.

“The issue here is how we make sure that consumers and innovators have open access to networks,” suggested Wheeler. “That led us to a more robust investigation of the well-established concept of just and reasonable, which is a Title II concept.”

Not everyone agrees, including trade groups such as CTIA and companies such as Verizon.

“To apply 1930s-era utility regulation to the Internet under Title II reclassification would be a radical reversal for what has been an open, competitive and innovative Internet economy,” said a Verizon spokesman, as reported in Politico. “Such an approach would be particularly harmful to wireless broadband, which unlike traditional voice services, developed free of legacy Title II regulations.”

Related:
SuperSession: One-on-One with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Video), CEA, 1/15
At CES, FCC’s Wheeler Hints at Title II Net Neutrality Decision, GigaOM, 1/7/15
Only 25Mbps and Up Will Qualify as Broadband Under New FCC Definition, Ars Technica, 1/7/15
Telecom Industry Readies for a Net-Neutrality Fight, The Wall Street Journal, 1/8/15
AT&T Invokes Title II Status to Dismiss FTC Data Throttling Suit, Engadget, 1/10/15