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Congresscritters sound off to FCC's Wheeler on net neutrality plans

Neither side very happy with proposals for new rules

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Days after announcing new plans for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), chairman Tom Wheeler faced members of Congress to hear feedback on net neutrality.

Speaking to the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Communications and Technology, Wheeler faced criticism and concern from both sides of the political aisle as he fielded questions and comments from members.

Among those speaking out against the plans were California's Anna Eshoo. The Democrat whose district spans from Redwood City to San Jose and Santa Cruz expressed concern that the FCC needs to adopt a "light but strengthful touch" which would ensure that the Commission can protect competitive balance.

"I don't want this to become an auction," Eshoo warned, "selling off the best in bits and pieces where some pay for faster lanes, others can't pay, they get stuck in a slow lane with some giant company blocking content and others discriminating so they can sell their stuff and keep the other guy's stuff stymied."

Much like the public as a whole, members of Congress remain sharply divided on just what role the FCC should play, if any, in managing how carriers should deal with web services and consumers when it comes to allocating bandwidth and granting expanded network access.

On the elephantine side of the spectrum, lawmakers claim that the FCC is setting itself up to wield too much power. Representative Greg Walden, a Republican from Oregon and chairman of the committee, said that the plan to oversee net neutrality, particularly the threat to implement Title II provisions, would put too much regulatory power in the hands of the FCC.

"Unfortunately given the most recent actions of the commission I fear we may be heading into some rough waters," Walden said.

"The item the commission adopted last week tees up the long-dead idea that the internet is a common carrier, thus reinvigorating willingness to consider regulating the internet under Title II of the Communications Act, rules that find their roots in the 19th century railroad regulation and were designed to regulate the world of a telephone monopoly."

Still other members of the committee worry that the FCC has not gone far enough in setting itself up to enforce open internet principles.

"If this concept moves forward we could inadvertently block the next Google or Amazon from the market without even knowing it," California Democrat Doris Matsui told Wheeler.

"I'm concerned that your hands may be tied here. Even if the Commission wanted to ban anticompetitive paid prioritization deals you may not have the authority or tools to do so."

For his part, Wheeler suggested that the FCC could limit its use of Title II, while still keeping the power to intervene should service providers take measures deemed anti-competitive or harmful to consumers.

The chairman believes that the FCC should look to maintain a "virtuous cycle" in which the delivery of internet services and the creation of new content is a goal and decisions to approve or block deals would be based on whether that cycle would be threatened.

"In the wireless context, Congress created wireless as common carrier but said this doesn't apply and this doesn't apply," Wheeler said. "We can do that as a commission as well." ®

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