FCC Chairman Shoots Down President's Call for Strong Net Neutrality Oversight

President Barack Obama and and FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler both agree something needs to be done to protect Net Neutrality, but they don't agree on exactly what that will be. Mr. Wheeler told Internet company executives he doesn't support the President's call for strong controls to ensure all Internet traffic is treated equally, and instead wants a system that caters more to ISPs such as Comcast and Time Warner.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler doesn't agree with President Obama's Net Neutrality ideaFCC Chairman Tom Wheeler doesn't agree with President Obama's Net Neutrality idea

The President took a very clear stance on Net Neutrality earlier this week when he publicly urged the FCC to "implement the strongest possible rules to protect net neutrality." Specifically, he called for regulations prohibiting ISPs from favoring some traffic while throttling other traffic, a prohibition on paid prioritization where companies such as Netflix are forced to pay fees so their content won't be degraded before reaching customers, and a ban on blocking content that ISPs see as competition.

Mr. Wheeler seems to think a system where ISPs can create "Internet fast lanes" is appropriate, and fits with the spirit of a free and open Internet. He also seems to be under the misguided impression that he needs to find a compromise where he gives something to consumers as well as ISPs.

"What you want is what everyone wants: an open Internet that doesn't affect your business," Mr. Wheeler told company executives, according to The Washington Post. "What I've got to figure out is how to split the baby."

In this case, there is no figurative baby to split, because the issue is whether or not the United States will support and enforce an Internet that treats all data equally, or a system where ISPs take control and warp the system to fit their own financial goals. Splitting the baby, so to speak, is just another way of saying Mr. Wheeler plans to favor ISPs over a truly open and fair Internet.

Next Up: Wheeler's Balancing Act

Wheeler's Balancing Act

It's easy to jump to the conclusion that Mr. Wheeler is simply in the pocket of companies such as Comcast, Time Warner, and Verizon, but he may instead truly believe a solution that favors ISPs over an open Internet is in everyone's best interests. If the companies providing the infrastructure to get data from Internet servers to us don't see a financial incentive to improve their services, they won't — or so the argument goes.

AT&T did its part this week to help back up that idea by putting its planned high speed fiber network plans for 100 cities on hold. Company CEO Randall Stephenson said AT&T won't build out its fiber network while Net Neutrality regulations are in the air. "We can't go out and invest that kind of money deploying fiber to 100 cities not knowing under what rules those investments will be governed," he said.

The implication being that AT&T doesn't support regulations that limit how it distributes bandwidth based on who pays what. The underlying message going along with the move is that tightly controlled Net Neutrality is bad for the economy.

Verizon also made it clear where it stands on Net Neutrality regulations by threatening to sue the FCC should stricter controls win out. Instead, Verizon wants to charge companies such as Netflix premiums to ensure videos don't stall or drop out while customers are watching. That's something Verizon and Comcast have already managed to strong arm Netflix into agreeing to, and a practice they'd no doubt like to impose on other content providers, too.

The fear now is that Mr. Wheeler's plans, no matter how well intentioned, will be little more than vague and empty regulations that to little to protect end user's ability to access the content and sites they want while leaving the door open for ISPs to extract big fees out of content providers.

If the ISPs were stereotypical thugs, it would be akin to saying, "Gee, Netflix. That's a really nice video stream you have there. It'd be a shame if something bad happened to it."

Net Neutrality has become a political hot button with comments coming from the likes of Senator Ted Cruz saying, "Net Neutrality is Obamacare for the Internet." That puts Mr. Wheeler in an awkward position because even though the FCC is an independent agency, it still relies on funding from Congress, and lawmakers who could be unhappy with his decisions are in a position to make that funding dry up.

Republicans seem hell bent on turning the Internet into a pay-to-play sort of system where content providers are forced to pony up extra cash or potentially get blocked from end users. At a minimum, they would likely see serious performance degradation while companies that do write ISPs the big checks would get a bandwidth boost.

A compromise often means everyone gets something, but no one is truly happy. In this case, it means ISPs will likely get what they want while Net Neutrality will loses out, and that ultimately means end users will lose out, too.