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FCC Chairman Hints at Net Neutrality Action

Wheeler remains mum on what the agency will do and when it may act.

Amy Schatz

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler remained coy about how his agency plans to respond to a recent federal appeals court decision to throw out net neutrality rules, but suggested action is forthcoming.

“I interpret what the court did as an invitation to us and I intend to accept that invitation,” Wheeler said Tuesday morning at the State of the Net Conference in Washington, D.C.

Much of the discussion focused on the related concerns of Internet companies and others over how rules that govern how broadband companies interconnect with each other to exchange traffic will need to change as the U.S. moves to all-digital networks. Broadband providers have commercial peering arrangements with each other to send and receive traffic. Those deals sometimes grow strained as providers send a lopsided amount of Internet video traffic onto partner networks.

Wheeler said interconnection concerns aren’t the same thing as net neutrality, but that it’s a “cousin, maybe a sibling” of the issue, since they both deal with rules over how data is transferred among networks.

After the moderator, Gigaom’s Stacey Higginbotham, described how peering issues have impacted services of some Internet companies, most notably Netflix, Wheeler assured the audience that he understood the concerns.

“I understand exactly the situation you’re describing. I don’t think this is TMI, but my wife and I like to lie in bed and watch Netflix,” Wheeler told the crowd. Like other people, Wheeler finds the video sometimes stutters and doesn’t stream properly.

“‘You’re chairman of the FCC, why is this happening?’” Wheeler said his wife complained.

On Thursday, the FCC is expected to approve an item that will allow phone companies and broadband providers to begin experimenting with different ways of providing services as the country transitions to all-IP (Internet protocol) networks.

Rules governing interconnection between companies are just one of the major issues that the FCC is looking at tackling in this area. Another is how to ensure consumers understand how networks are changing and what that means for them. For example, traditional copper wire phone lines continue to work even if the power goes off. But some people may not understand that Internet phones will only continue to work until their batteries run out.

“The challenge we’re going through right now is that you want to make sure there’s innovation. You want to make sure there’s experimentation. You want to make sure you’re allowing a network to evolve and operate and not have the kind of command and control that was possible in the old days,” Wheeler said. “But you also want to make sure there are not abuses.”

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