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FCC boss hints at change to neutrality policy

'Pay for priority' set to be revisited?

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Internet neutrality – the principle that all traffic is equal – may be the official policy of the Federal Communications Commission, but it's also something that new FCC chair Tom Wheeler seems to consider still on the table for discussion.

That is, if the definition of “net neutrality” means there is never any scope for a provider to apply quality of service as a product differentiator – something which becomes contentious when people begin debating neutrality. As things now stand, the FCC takes a dim view of payment to get higher quality of service.

Wheeler endorses the idea that a Netflix might want to buy a higher QoS to ensure guaranteed performance, as distinct from best-effort performance. Answering questions after an address given to Ohio State University – the video is available here – Wheeler put his position in response to a question by radio and TV news presenter Mike Thompson.

The Q&A session starts at around the 29 minute mark.

Thompson: “Mr Chairman, you said regulating the Internet is a non-starter. What exactly does that mean? … How much regulating should the FCC do of the Internet?”

Wheeler: “What the Internet does is not an area that is appropriate for federal regulation … with a few notable exceptions. The requirement that a 911 call over the Internet gets through is non-negotiable. Issues like child pornography need to be stopped on the Internet is not a bridge too far.

“But considering what else the Internet delivers, and what else the Internet does should be off-limits to the government”.

Thompson: “Do you support 'net neutrality? That a cable broadband provider like Time Warner or AT&T cannot limit Netflix, cannot block Netflix?”

Wheeler: “Let me be clear on that. There's a one-word answer: Yes. We stand for the open Internet. As I was saying … you can't have access unless you have the ability to access any lawful network, and we put in place, I should say the previous chairman … put in place the 'open Internet' rules. We're currently defending them in court, Verizon sued to block them.

“We expect that sometime this month or next month, the court will rule. We're hopeful that the court will affirm ... reasonable rules that require carriers to make sure they provide access.”

And then the interview reaches the hot-button moment, when Wheeler cites Netflix unprompted:

Thompson: “Should carriers be allowed to charge more for data hogs, someone who plays online video gaming 20 hours a day?”

Wheeler: “We're seeing the market evolve in ways that there will be variations in pricing, and there will be variations of service … I am a firm believer in the market. I think we're going to see a two-sided world, where Netflix might say, 'I'll pay in order to make sure that you might receive … the best possible transmission of this movie'. I think we want to let these kinds of things evolve.

“We want to observe what happens from that, and we want to make decisions accordingly … the marketplace is where these decisions ought to be made.” ®

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