Lawmakers press FCC chief for net neutrality details

Lawmakers on the House Commerce Subcommittee on Communications want Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler to nail down the specifics of his plan to rewrite the agency’s net neutrality rules.

Democrats on the panel expressed concerns that Wheeler’s plans to rewrite the rules will create Internet “fast lanes” where only deep-pocketed Internet companies can pay for decent access to their users, while Republicans asked Wheeler to drop his consideration of stricter rules that they say will hurt Internet providers’ ability to innovate.

But Wheeler responded to lawmakers concerns with reminders that his proposal is in its beginning stages, and all options are on the table.

Last week, the FCC voted to move forward with Wheeler’s plans to rewrite the rules, which kept Internet providers from blocking or slowing access to websites before they were struck down in federal court in January.

While Wheeler’s proposal considers multiple paths forward — including reclassifying Internet providers as a utility under “Title II” of the agency’s foundational law — it focuses on rules that would allow Internet providers and websites to reach “commercially reasonable” agreements to boost traffic.

The proposal drew ire from critics on both sides of the aisle, with Republicans calling on Wheeler to abandon his attempts to resurrect the rules and Democrats saying he should enact stronger rules by reclassifying Internet providers.

“There are two diametrically opposed positions,” Wheeler told lawmakers on Tuesday. 

“One is that we shouldn’t do anything,” while the other calls for treating Internet providers like utility companies, he said, defending his proposal as raising questions on the next step forward.

Commerce ranking member Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) urged Wheeler to use both authorities when rewriting the rules.

“You can issue strong rules and have a strong legal case if you use a belt and suspenders approach to the next rule making,” he said.

Rep. Doris Matsui (D-Calif.) said she wants to ban deals that would allow Internet providers to charge websites for better access to users and asked Wheeler to evaluate “peering” arrangements, or the interconnection deals that companies cut to exchange Internet traffic.

The FCC “needs to look at and will be looking at” these peering deals, Wheeler replied, reminding lawmakers that some types of prioritization will always be allowed under the agency’s net neutrality rules, regardless of what authority it bases them on.

Wheeler also took heat for recent FCC actions aimed at keeping television broadcasters from colluding.

Subcommittee Chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) asked Wheeler if he was “bullying the broadcasters to give up spectrum” so that the agency would have more airwaves to sell off in its highly-anticipated 2015 spectrum auction.

“You are taking lots of regulatory actions and it does have an effect on the marketplace,” Walden said.

Wheeler denied that his actions are designed to push broadcasters to sell back their airwaves.

The FCC “should send positive signals to broadcasters” to convince them to participate in the auction, he said, pointing the agency’s vote on auction rules last week that got AT&T to commit to spending billions in the auction.

“We’re not trying to take regulatory action in unrelated areas,” Wheeler said.