Three weeks after proclaiming his administration’s “unequivocal” support for net neutrality at a California town hall meeting, President Obama issued a statement on Monday that calls on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a Title II service that would be subject to common carrier regulation.
The president’s remarks follow on recent reports that the FCC is now considering a hybrid approach to net neutrality that would rely on both Title II of the 1934 Communications Act and Section 706 of the 1996 Telecommunications Act to achieve the FCC’s open Internet goals. Emphasizing the importance of an open Internet “to the American economy,” Obama voiced his belief that the FCC “should create a new set of rules protecting net neutrality and ensuring that neither the cable company nor the phone company will be able to act as a gatekeeper.” Such rules, argued Obama, “must . . . build on the lessons” of long-standing law and precedent that “has recognized that companies who connect you to the world have special obligations not to exploit the monopoly they enjoy over access in and out of your home or business.” As he proclaimed “the same philosophy should [also] guide any service that is based on the transmission of information,” Obama recommended that the FCC should “reclassify consumer broadband service under Title II . . . while at the same time forbearing from rate regulation and other provisions less relevant to broadband services.”
Obama further contended that open Internet rules based on Title II should be “fully applicable to mobile broadband as well, while recognizing the special challenges that come with managing wireless networks.” As long as such rules “are carefully designed” and “have clear, monitored exceptions for reasonable network management,” Obama maintained that a Title II track “should not create any undue burden for ISPs.” The president acknowledged, however, that he has no power to direct the FCC to reclassify broadband in view of the fact that the agency is “independent . . . and ultimately this decision is theirs alone.”
Not surprisingly, Obama’s words provoked strong reaction on both sides of the net neutrality debate. As House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman Fred Upton (R-MI) lamented that the president “is abandoning the successful hands-off policy of his Republican and Democratic predecessors in favor of centrally-controlled Internet policy,” CTIA President Meredith Atwell Baker warned that the proposed Title II approach “puts at risk the investment and
innovation which characterizes America’s world-leading $196 billion wireless industry.” While implying possible legal action if the FCC acts in accordance with Obama’s wishes, AT&T said it would suspend plans to extend its fiber network to 100 U.S. cities, explaining: “we can’t go out and invest . . . not knowing under what rules those investments will be governed.” At the same time, Chip Pickering, the CEO of competitive carrier association COMPTEL, lauded Title II as “the best means to safeguard competition and consumer choice,” as House minority leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) urged the FCC to “act swiftly to create clear and enforceable net neutrality standards so the Internet can continue to foster freedom and prosperity.”
Reaction from FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, meanwhile, proved to be somewhat muted. As he promised to incorporate Obama’s statement into the FCC’s record, Wheeler admitted, “the reclassification and hybrid approaches before us raise substantive legal questions” that make it “plain . . . there is more work to do.” Wheeler thus told reporters: “we must take the time to get the job done correctly, once and for all.”