FCC's Wheeler Again Hints at Possible Net Neutrality Regulations for Wireless

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By Paul Barbagallo

Sept. 9 — The Federal Communications Commission is studying whether the increased availability of 4G LTE mobile broadband services nationwide now necessitates more stringent net neutrality regulations, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in a keynote speech at CTIA-The Wireless Association's Super Mobility Week in Las Vegas.

His remarks come six days before the deadline to file comments on the FCC's proposal to restore elements of its Open Internet order, which was largely vacated by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in January. That order treated mobile wireless broadband networks with a lighter touch than wired networks—an assumption that now may not “match new realities,” Wheeler said.

“Although the comment cycle has not yet closed, we are already closely examining the issues and the record,” Wheeler said in his keynote remarks Sept. 9, the first day of CTIA's show. “One of the constant themes on the record is how consumers increasingly rely on mobile broadband as an important pathway to access the Internet.

“What is the impact of the dramatic switch to smart devices for wireless Internet access?”

Wheeler, a former chief executive officer of CTIA, cited statistics indicating that when the commission voted to adopt the order in December 2010, there were only 200,000 LTE subscribers; today there are 120 million, with infrastructure build-out complete to serve 300 million Americans.

CTIA Cites ‘Unique' Constraints

CTIA, whose new CEO Meredith Attwell Baker voted against the FCC's Open Internet order in 2010 when she was the junior Republican commissioner, recently filed a paper with the FCC voicing opposition the idea of regulating wireless carriers the same as wired providers. Wireless simply faces “unique operational constraints,” CTIA wrote in the paper.

The trade group made similar arguments in 2010, and then-Chairman Julius Genachowski had agreed.

“That is one of the questions with which we will have to wrestle,” Wheeler said.

For months now, Wheeler has hinted at the possibility of more aggressively regulating wireless carriers as part of the agency's restored Open Internet rules. In May, Wheeler sent letters to the four major U.S. wireless carriers requesting detailed information about their network-management practices.

“We are very concerned about the possibility that some customers are being singled out for disparate treatment even though they have paid for the capacity that is being throttled,” Wheeler added in his CTIA remarks. “And we are equally concerned that customers may have been led to purchase devices relying on the promise of unlimited usage only to discover, after the device purchase, that they are subject to throttling. I am hard-pressed to understand how either practice, much less the two together, could be a reasonable way to manage a network.”

Wheeler made it clear that the agency's Open Internet proceeding will “look closely” at both the question of what is “reasonable” and how network-management practices can be “transparent to consumers and edge providers.”

Ultimately, any new wireless-centric net neutrality regulations are likely to trigger more vigorous opposition, and perhaps even a court appeal.

The FCC's Wireless Telecommunications Bureau will hold an Open Internet roundtable on Sept. 16, at which this debate is expected to feature prominently.

To contact the reporter on this story: Paul Barbagallo in Washington at pbarbagallo@bna.com

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Bob Emeritz at bemeritz@bna.com