New Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler may have started his term off on a pro-consumer note, but his latest remarks could throw a wrench into that initial image. While taking questions at Ohio State University, Wheeler delivered a pair of seemingly opposing answers: he declared his support for net neutrality, but then endorsed a marketplace that seemingly doesn't follow those very rules.
"There will be variations in pricing ... in service."
"I think that we're seeing the market evolve in such a way that there will be variations in pricing, there will be variations in service," Wheeler said. He then said that a "two-sided market" could develop, "Netflix might say, 'I'll pay in order to make sure that my subscriber might receive the best possible transmission of this movie.'"
As Public Knowledge points out, Wheeler's remarks are somewhat ambiguous. Rather than explicitly suggesting that Netflix could pay an internet provider to give its customers better service — which would violate tenets of net neutrality by discriminating against certain companies or services — his remarks could be interpreted as simply suggesting that it build out a better content delivery infrastructure of its own. However, the answer came after being asked if carriers should be allowed to charge "data hogs" more for their larger use of a network. While the FCC wouldn't directly clarify these remarks, staff said that they should be seen in the context of the speech Wheeler gave preceding the question-and-answer section where these statements came up.
And indeed, Wheeler's answers do go on to echo points of his speech, which spoke to the FCC's need to balance an open internet, competition, and consumers' interests. "I'm a firm believer in the market," Wheeler said in the Q&A. He explained that he was interested in allowing these market behaviors to play out and then making decisions based on what that looked like. "The functionality of a competitive marketplace dictates the degree of regulation," he said. FCC staff said that the overriding message was that it was willing to take action under the Open Internet rules in order to protect competition and encourage innovation.
With Wheeler previously serving as a lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries, fears that he may harm net neutrality aren't entirely unfounded. But despite his ambiguous remarks, Wheeler claims to be in full support of net neutrality. "Let me be real clear on that. There's a one-word answer," Wheeler said. "Yes." Unfortunately, Wheeler's answer seems to need more than one word.
Update: Earlier phrasing made it appear that Wheeler said he supported providers' ability to block or limit services. The article has been updated to clarify that he was explaining he does not support this.