One day before he was expected to present his proposed regulations on the Internet, Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler laid plain his case for protecting full net neutrality with a guest opinion on Wired.com and a detailed seven-minute interview on the PBS Newshour Wednesday.
First, he explains that “The internet wouldn’t have emerged as it did… if the FCC hadn’t mandated open access for network equipment in the late 1960s.” With this in mind, he says the full net neutrality proposal he’s poised to release this week are simply the next evolutionary step in telecommunications and regulatory principles that best reflect free expression.
“The modems that enabled the internet were useable only because the FCC required the network to be open,” he continued. Early internet providers like AOL were successful because of their ability to utilize open telephone networks. Pointing to his entrepreneurial days as head of a start-up company, NABU, Wheeler admits his company failed where AOL succeeded because NABU “had to depend on cable television operators granting access to their systems.” By comparison, AOL’s Steve Case “had access to an unlimited number of customers nationwide who only had to attach a modem to their phone line to receive his service. The phone network was open whereas the cable networks were closed. End of story.”
The regulations he’s ready to put forth will not stifle innovation and hinder the ability of cable and internet companies to bundle services or their ability to charge a fair price for their services, he continues.
“Over the last 21 years, the wireless industry has invested almost $300 billion under similar rules [as Title II, the Telecommunications Act he’s proposing to use for the internet], proving that modernized Title II regulation can encourage investment and competition,” he says. Late last year, flying in the face of concerns raised by other companies, leadership of several internet providers have said full net neutrality protection would not impair their planned investment in broadband networks.
“Congress wisely gave the FCC the power to update its rules to keep pace with innovation,” Wheeler concludes. “Under that authority, my proposal includes a general conduct rule that can be used to stop new and novel threats to the internet. This means the action we take will be strong enough and flexible enough not only to deal with the realities of today, but also to establish ground rules for the as yet unimagined.”
In talking with PBS Newshour host Gwen Ifill, Wheeler turns directly at those who question what happens in the future, if the courts, Congress or a president disagree with the FCC’s anticipated embrace of these regulations. After noting that the current rules regulating wireless communications haven’t been modified in the more than 20 years since their introduction, Wheeler says it’s more important to take action now.
“What’s important is to establish the precedent, to vanquish some of the imaginary horribles that everybody always throws out could possibly happen, to build a track record and let it speak for itself,” he said. “What we’ve done is to establish a path forward to a fast, fair and open internet that allows for a reasonable return for those who are building it.”
The FCC is expected to vote on Wheeler’s proposal on Feb. 26.
Broadband for America, which last week began airing radio and TV commercials claiming the proposed Title II regulations for the internet would lead to billions of dollars in new taxes and fees for consumers, didn’t respond to a request for comment Wednesday afternoon.
The Future of Music Coalition was among the first organizations — and there were many — to thank Wheeler for his action and commitment to net neutrality. Calling the announcement “welcome news to the music community, especially the thousands of artists and independent labels who have engaged on this issue for a decade,” Casey Rae, the organization’s CEO, said musicians in particular should be proud of the work they’ve done to reach this point. More than four million comments were submitted to the FCC in support of net neutrality, but the struggle likely isn’t over yet.
“Giant internet companies like Comcast and Verizon will certainly push back against these rules in the courts, but the FCC has chosen the best line of defense. Musicians and indie labels know what’s at stake and you can bet we’ll be there for the long haul. Our ability to reach audiences on our own terms, to build business and express ourselves depends on an open internet.”
This might just be the latest foray in the battle over internet access, but it’s a good day for musicians and artists. A legal battle is sure to follow, and some have already pointed out that the protections outlined by Wheeler won’t solve problems faced by some Americans, especially those in rural areas.