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FCC chairman downplays net neutrality differences with Obama

The agency will not allow paid priority deals if they are bad for consumers or for innovation, Wheeler says

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The U.S. Federal Communications Commission chairman's view of net neutrality rules and President Barack Obama's are not as different as some reports this week have suggested, the chairman said Friday.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, a Democrat appointed by Obama, downplayed news reports suggesting Obama wants stronger net neutrality rules than he does. Wheeler has proposed new net neutrality rules that would allow broadband providers to engage in "commercially reasonable" network management -- and, in some cases, charge Web services for priority traffic handling.

But earlier this week, Obama spoke out against broadband providers collecting extra charges from some Web content providers.

"You don't want to start getting a differentiation in how accessible the Internet is to different users," Obama said Tuesday to reporters covering a summit for African leaders in Washington, D.C.

Wheeler, questioned Friday after the FCC's August meeting, said the FCC will take a hard look at paid prioritization as it moves toward adopting new net neutrality rules. Wheeler has pushed for new rules after a U.S. appeals court threw out most of the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules earlier this year.

"Anything that interferes with the virtuous cycle [of Internet growth] is something that can and should be prohibited," Wheeler said. "Prioritization, in my opinion, interferes with the virtuous cycle.

"Let me be really clear: If prioritization hurts consumers, hurts innovation, hurts competition, degrades service, it's DOA [dead on arrival]," Wheeler added.

Wheeler defended his proposal, released earlier this year, as a starting point for discussion on new net neutrality rules. The agency has received more than 1 million public comments on net neutrality, with many people opposing paid prioritization.

Wheeler also addressed concerns that he has with a Verizon Wireless plan to sometimes scale back connection speeds for the top 5 percent of data users on so-called unlimited plans. Wheeler, in a letter to Verizon, said he's concerned that Verizon is trying to move grandfathered customers off its discontinued unlimited data plan.

Verizon has defended the plan, saying it's an effort to ensure the best experience for its customer base and noting that other carriers also throttle mobile traffic.

Digital rights group Public Knowledge said this week it plans to file net neutrality complaints against Verizon and other large mobile carriers over traffic throttling. The carriers are violating transparency requirements in the FCC's 2010 net neutrality rules that survived the appeals court review this year, the group said.

"'All the kids do it' was never something that worked with me when I was growing up," Wheeler said.

The net neutrality rules allow carriers to engage in reasonable network management, but it's a technology and engineering issue, Wheeler said. "My concern in this instance ... is that it is moving from technology and engineering issues into business issues," he said. After Verizon stopped subsidizing smartphones for customers on unlimited data plans, "you can't just turn around and say, 'you can't use unlimited any more,'" he added.

Verizon, in 2008's 700MHz spectrum auction, purchased a block of spectrum with net neutrality rules attached, Wheeler noted. The rules said the buyer "may not block, degrade or interfere" with customer's connections, he said.

A Verizon spokesman declined to comment on Wheeler's concerns.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.



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