FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler takes strong stand for net neutrality


Unless you’re Comcast or AT&T, you ought to be heartened by Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler’s embrace of a free and open Internet.

Writing in Wired magazine, Wheeler rejected the notion of Internet toll lanes by which big companies could pay to receive preferential treatment and greater access to consumers’ homes and businesses.

Instead, Wheeler likens Internet providers to public utilities. Like utilities, the Internet has become a common carrier. No matter who you are, you likely depend upon the Internet to ferry you from here to there as you conduct your daily affairs.

Wheeler promises to submit proposed new rules to the full commission for a vote on Feb. 26. His goal is “preserve the Internet as an open platform for innovation and free expression.”

Importantly, his proposal would apply to mobile broadband, or wireless Internet, so that users can to go any legal site by whatever means.

The notion of net neutrality is especially important in California, where startups and innovators need equal Internet access, just like Google, Apple, Facebook, Netflix and other behemoths, which were themselves startups only a few years ago.

Wheeler seeks to apply Title II of the 1934 Communications Act to the Internet. The 1934 act was intended to prohibit radio, phone and telegraph operators from price gouging and restricting access to critical service.

Without doubt, the Internet providers will squawk. As they have in the past, some combination of them probably will sue to block us from having unfettered access.

Michael Powell, head of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, issued a statement denouncing the proposal, saying it “goes far beyond the worthy goal of establishing important net neutrality protections.” Powell was FCC chairman under President George W. Bush.

Wheeler said he will seek to ensure that providers receive adequate rates of return.

To the extent the stock prices are a gauge of what Washington regulators think or do, investors didn’t seem too alarmed by Wheeler’s comments. Comcast’s stock price ticked up by 2.69 percent on Wednesday.

President Barack Obama has made clear that there shouldn’t be fast lanes for the corporations that can pay. No doubt, Wheeler is implementing his president’s vision. That vision is shared by many Americans; there have been 4 million comments on the FCC’s net neutrality proposal.

“We need to keep Internet providers from bullying or playing favorites. We don’t want them to be gatekeepers,” Ellen Bloom, of Consumers Union in Washington, among the consumer advocates who lauded Wheeler, said in an interview.

Simultaneously, the Federal Communications Commission and U.S. Department of Justice are deciding whether to approve the Comcast-Time Warner merger. The California Public Utilities Commission and Attorney General Kamala Harris ought to speak up, as well.

The resulting merger would create a hugely powerful entity that could exert undue control over the Internet. Given that ominous prospect, Wheeler’s strong stand in favor of free and open access is even more important.