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FCC boss: Oh look, net neutrality didn't end the world after all. Surprise!

Chairman Wheeler is having the last laugh

Tom Wheeler, chairman of US broadband watchdog the FCC, has given telcos a firm poke in the eye over their net neutrality doomsday predictions.

Speaking on the one-year anniversary of the Open Internet Order at the GnoviCon conference in Washington DC, Wheeler reflected on the fact that the big telcos railed against the rules.

"Critics howled that the rules would be devastating for network investment – that broadband deployment would screech to a halt," he reminisced. "So how are those predictions working out?"

As has been pointed out repeatedly by net neutrality advocates, the argument was more FUD (fear, uncertainty, and doubt) than danger.

Wheeler concurs: "The nation's largest providers are all telling Wall Street that they plan sustained and significant capital expenditures in 2016 and beyond," he pointed out. "AT&T projects $22 billion in capital expenditures this year, a $2 billion increase. Comcast says it plans 'increased investment in network infrastructure' in 2016 ... Verizon says it 'remains committed to consistently investing in our networks for the future'."

He also references the fact that Google is expanding its fiber rollout plans, investing billions, despite knowing it is subject to the rules.

Rather than causing economic hardship, Wheeler claims the open internet "is driving more network usage and – surprise! – that increased usage is driving more revenue per user. More openness, more demand, more broadband. It's just that simple."

He summed up: "The whole argument that we could have either Open Internet protections or robust network investment was – and remains – a false choice. We can, and do, have both an Open Internet and continued investment in bigger and better broadband. We can have an Open Internet and light-touch regulation that encourages innovation and consumer choice."

Wheeler fell back on his referee analogy to explain the new landscape (but thankfully left the Robin Hood/policeman mashup behind this time): "The real choice at the heart of the net neutrality debate is whether those who build the networks should make the rules by themselves or whether there should be a basic set of rules and a referee on the field to throw the flag if they are violated. To me, the choice remains clear."


He then moved to pushing his latest effort to bring the telcos in line (following the drive to end the cable box ripoff): forcing telcos to subscribe to common data privacy rules so subscribers can opt-in to how their data is being used.

Critics have been arguing that effort shows that the FCC is starting to abuse the new powers it has under the Open Internet rules (where internet access was legally reclassified as a Title II service, giving the FCC more authority over it). Wheeler, obviously, sees things differently, arguing that there was clear gap before and that the FCC is now able to fill it ("Congress has not authorized the Federal Trade Commission to regulate common carriers").

Noting that the Title II reclassification has "meaningful implications for privacy," he argues that in the past, the Commission "refrained" from applying common privacy rules to broadband suppliers. Not any longer.

And tying it back to the net neutrality fight, Wheeler told the audience not to listen to the griping telcos. "We know there will be opposition. We've already heard the naysayers argue that FCC privacy rules would stifle business models that support faster, better broadband networks. We've seen that movie before."

He makes a good point though: "The bottom line is that it's your data; it should be your choice about how that data is shared and used."

Tom Wheeler the telco eye-poker then left the stage. ®

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