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FCC proposes treating all Internet traffic equally

The Federal Communications Commission unrolled a plan to preserve equal access to the Internet for all users, treating broadband in a way that’s similar to a public utility. Leading up to the announcement, more than 4 million commenters weighed in on the net neutrality debate at the FCC in the past year. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler joins Gwen Ifill to discuss the decision.

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    The chairman of the Federal Communications Commission cheered consumer advocates and angered the cable industry today with a long-awaited announcement imposing new rules on the Internet service providers. If adopted, the proposal, known as net neutrality, would be designed to make sure Internet traffic is treated equally. The full commission votes later this month.

    It would forbid companies from blocking access to legal broadband content, ban practices that slow Internet streaming, and prohibit companies from paying cable providers to speed delivery. More than four million commenters have weighed in on this debate at the FCC during the past year, sometimes crashing servers.

    Last month, President Obama endorsed this approach as well.

    Joining me now to discuss the decision is FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler.

    Welcome, and thank you.

  • TOM WHEELER, Chairman, Federal Communications Commission:

    Thank you, Gwen.


    Do you see your proposal as a way of constraining commercial interests or expanding consumer interests?


    I think it is a balance of both, and that's been the challenge through it all.

    You want to make sure that you have got protections in place, so that consumers know that, when they go to the Internet, it's going to be fast, it's going to be fair, and it's going to be open.

    And, at the same point in time, you want to do it in a way that's not going to constrain investment, because, obviously, we want people, companies, to be building faster and more ubiquitous broadband networks. So, it's been a balance of both of those.


    And we're going to talk a little bit about constraining investment, because that's what some of your critics say this would do.

    But, first, I want to talk about how this whole debate has changed for you. A year ago, I don't necessarily think you were — had signed on to the idea of treating the Internet as a public utility, but now, in the face of the growth of wireless access to broadband, do you see it differently?


    Well, I think there are a couple of points there, Gwen.

    One is, I have always been a proponent of an open Internet, going back to my days as an entrepreneur, when I felt the sting of closed networks, shall we say. And, secondly, just one correction. We're really not doing utility regulation here. Utility regulation was developed for a monopoly model.

    What we're doing is, we're taking the legal construct that once was used for phone companies and paring It back to modernize it, so it specifically deals with this issue. So it's not really utility regulation, but it is regulation to make sure that there is somebody watching out for the consumer, that, like you said, there's no pay prioritization, there's no blocking, there's no throttling.

    And, most important, there will be ongoing rules in perpetuity, so that there will be a yardstick to measure what's fair for consumers, because we don't know what the Internet's going to be five years from now, and we don't know what the various tricks are going to be five years from now. But we're going to have a referee on the field.


    OK. Let's talk about what some of your critics have had to say, starting with the National Cable Telecommunications Association, which put out this statement today.

  • They said:

    "Despite the repeated assurances from the president and Chairman Wheeler, we remain concerned that this proposal will confer sweeping discretion to regulate rates and set the economic terms and conditions of business relationships," just the opposite of what you just promised.


    That is the opposite. You're right.

    And I think that when they actually see the proposal after it's enacted by the commission, they will see that there is no rate regulation. They will see that there is no tariffing. They will see that there's no unbundling, all the classic utility kinds of activities.

    And what there is, is in place a set of safeguards for consumers that at the same time allow those cable companies to make a fair return so they're incented to expand their networks.


    The chairman of the Senate and the House Judiciary committees, both of them Republicans, John Thune in the Senate and Bob Goodlatte in the House, one said, Mr. Goodlatte, that this would squelch investment, and innovation, by inference. And John Thune said it's a power grab.


    Well, I — you know, I respect their opinions, but I disagree.

    I mean, first of all, this is modeled after — it's interesting. I came out of the wireless industry, and the wireless industry has had rules like this for some time, since 1993. And it has been terrifically successful in raising $300 million in capital and building a vibrant, competitive business.

    That's the kind of model that the Internet is going to be able to have, rules that are in place that say, here's what we expect and provide certainty and encourage investment.

    The Congress, you know, has — the Congress makes our rules. I look forward to working with the Congress on these issues. I have talked to all the leadership of Congress in telecommunications in the last 24 hours. And I said, you know, I think these rules, by us putting out these rules, it creates some certainty in terms of just what the debate is about, rather than these ethereal kind of concepts that have been kicking around.


    Well, part of the certainty — or maybe it's the uncertainty, depending how you look at it — is that this is actually opening a Pandora's box, that there's no way to future-proof what you're doing from extending the hand of government even more into over-regulation.


    No, I think it's clear, Gwen, that what we have done, Gwen, is to cut down the number of things that used to be in the old-style regulation, and to only have those that truly can be effective here.

    Do you want practices to be just and reasonable? Do you want there to be a consumer process? Do you want there to be privacy? Do you want disabled to have rights? Those kinds of things, those aren't far-reaching utility over-regulatory kind of concepts.


    A lot of people have a say in whether any of this actually happens, the courts. And there's likely to be legal challenges to this. There is Congress. As we have discussed, there's already a little bit of pushback.

    And the possibility of a future president who doesn't agree with you. How do you future-proof for the politics of it?


    Well, it's interesting that, you know, these rules that I was talking about that have governed the wireless industry for the last 21 years, they have been in place as a result of a series of decisions made by the FCC that have been untouched for 21 years.

    I think what's important is to establish the precedent, to vanquish some of the imaginary horribles that everybody throws out could possibly happen, to build a track record, and to let it speak for itself. But I think that what we have 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.


    Tom Wheeler, chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, thank you very much.


    Thank you, Gwen.

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