Federal Communications Commission’s Wheeler: ‘The Internet can’t exist without a referee’

The Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler says the Internet cannot exist without a referee but played down regulatory perceptions of Net Neutrality, claiming that “no one has the right to thwart the openness of the internet”.

Net Neutrality is "no more to regulation of the Internet as the first amendment is to free speech". That was Wheeler’s riposte to claims that the controversial measures mask an agenda to control the “world’s most powerful and pervasive platform”. It’s not a regulation, it’s a guideline was the key message he repeatedly pushed during his keynote today (3 March) at Mobile World Congress.

The FCC green lit plans last week (26 February) to ensure internet service providers provide people with open networks - banning throttling, blocking and paid prioritisation - and cannot block or discriminate against any applications or content that ride over these networks. The watershed measures, rooted in Title 2 of the Communications Act, is a boon for big and large companies who rely on the open internet to advertise, sell and distribute the products.

“If the Internet is the most powerful and pervasive platform in the history of the planet then it can’t resist without a referee,” said Wheeler. Yet he assured that Net Neutrality would keep the Internet open.

The distinction between referee and regulator was not fully clarified during the address and Wheeler skirted around it when he said that regulators would handle the issue of what was permitted on a case-by-case basis.

The limited update on Net Neutrality will do little to quell its detractors. But Wheeler was forceful in his defence against those who have labelled the plan dated.

“We took the Title 2 concept and we modernised it,” he said. “We built our model for Net Neutrality on the regulatory model that has been widely successful in the US for mobile. We’re not going to impose old style utility regulation.

“Our goal is to specifically not impose restrictions that would order how the networks would work. We want network operators to be as innovative as possible, to have revenue streams from customer services that remain unchanged the day after to the day before the measures come in.”

The need to maintain healthy competition meant Net Neutrality was funnelled through four spectrums; to unleash the power of broadband, to ensure there is adequate spectrum for competition and lastly national security. It feeds into the FCC’s wider mandate, which has recently seen it oversee the auction of $45bn worth of wireless spectrum – the highest amount ever for this type of sale.

Wheeler said: “More spectrum, open networks and competition are the magic elixir that will drive innovation. It is the pathway of the 21st of century.”

On the topic of 5G, which the FCC is already investigating frequencies for possible use, Wheeler said it was akin to a Picasso painting, whereby different people see different things. The prospect of very high-bandwidth data transmissions is an attractive one for advertisers looking to satisfy consumers’ seemingly unquenchable thirst for content.

Wheeler concluded that the future of spectrum usage is broadcasters sharing spectrum, and added “that’s the beauty of digital”.

Find out more of the news taking place at Mobile World Congress at The Drum's dedicated event hub.

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