Wednesday, November 12, 2014

FCC Chair Wheeler faces either/or choice on Internet regulation; the baby can't be split.

Obama’s call for an open Internet puts him at odds with regulators - The Washington Post: Huddled in an FCC conference room Monday with officials from major Web companies, including Google, Yahoo and Etsy, agency Chairman Tom Wheeler said he has preferred a more nuanced solution. That approach would deliver some of what Obama wants but also would address the concerns of the companies that provide Internet access to millions of Americans, such as Comcast, Time Warner Cable and AT&T. “What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn’t affect your business,” a visibly frustrated Wheeler said at the meeting, according to four people who attended. “What I’ve got to figure out is how to split the baby.”

It's natural given Tom Wheeler's background as a telecom lobbyist that he would look for some kind of deal or compromise that opposing parties in a contentious policy issue can live with. But that's not what President Obama -- who designated Wheeler as Federal Communications Commission chair -- had in mind when he issued a statement this week calling on the FCC to issue rules defining Internet service a common carrier telecommunications service under Title II of the Communications Act instead of a more narrowly offered, specialized information service under Title I of the statute. These are entirely different regulatory schemes that don't lend themselves to hybrid models. It's an either/or choice. The baby can't be split. Moreover, doing so will only create legal uncertainty and fuel litigation. Rather than satisfying various stakeholders, none will be happy and more inclined to turn to the courts for redress of their grievances, potentially creating years of regulatory uncertainty.

Judging from the millions of comments filed with the FCC on the question, it's eminently clear the public preference is for Title II common carrier regulation of Internet service providers. Which makes sense given the Internet is gradually replacing the role the telephone system served in the past: a universal communications system accessible to everyone regardless of their location and whether they received or placed calls. Even the legacy incumbent telephone companies agree, saying it doesn't make sense for them to have to adhere to regulations governing landline telephone service.

Bottom line at this point, this is now primarily a political and not a regulatory issue. As such, expect politics to come more sharply into play. If Wheeler can't bring himself to make a clear policy call for Title II, President Obama could end up designating another Democrat on the FCC to replace him as chair. Speaking of Democratic politicians, I expect former President Bill Clinton will weigh in siding with Obama, saying something like Title II was where he ultimately intended Internet regulation to go when he signed the 1996 Telecommunications Act into law, with Title I more of a transitional but not permanent regulatory scheme. His vice president, Al Gore, could also join the Title II juggernaut.

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