WASHINGTON, Sept. 17, 2014 -- Testifying at a House hearing Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Chairman Tom Wheeler voiced strong support for an “Open Internet” and for eliminating the “digital divide” that has saddled rural areas with slow-or-no Internet and dropped calls.

Wheeler pointed out that the record 3.7 million comments the FCC has received since May on its proposed new Internet rules “are wildly in support of Open Internet requirements.” Recalling his experience running his own companies, he noted that he has personal reasons to support “net neutrality,” which treats all Internet content equally: “I bring 30 years of experience as small business person, including the scars of my companies being denied access to networks and I am a fervent believer in Open Internet.”

Wheeler’s fervency didn’t please all his congressional questioners at the Small Business Committee hearing. Chairman Sam Graves, R-Mo., a farmer, said he has “concerns about how a more heavily regulated Internet is going to affect small businesses.” Committee member Tom Rice, R-S.C., a tax attorney, pressed the issue further, asserting that enforcing rules to require net neutrality “will stifle innovation.”

Rice challenged Wheeler to come up with any examples of interference with Internet service – interference which Wheeler listed as “blocking, prioritizing, requiring some kind of pay for performance, degrading a service . . .” Rice asked “Are providers doing that?” Wheeler answered with several cases including “when Comcast blocked BitTorrent,” and “where carriers have blocked or degraded the ability to get Skype because it’s competitive to their voice service,” and “how AT&T blocked FaceTime.” In response, Rice insisted that the Internet “has been a fountain of innovation” but “When the federal government steps in and starts regulating, you will stifle that. . . . I would caution greatly against any further regulation of the Internet.”

Referring to January’s court ruling that overturned the FCC’s previous net neutrality rules, Wheeler’s final answer to Rice was that “most of America’s major carriers have said ‘we will adhere to the 2010 Open Internet rules’ even though they’ve been thrown out by the court. And in adhering to them, have continued to innovate and continued to invest and that’s the process that we want to see continue.”

Wheeler was equally supportive of the need to deal with the so-called “digital divide” that shortchanges rural areas in terms of the high-speed Internet access which he said has become essential for homes, schools, hospitals, libraries and small businesses throughout the country. He explained that the FCC is working hard to develop new ways to “expand communications opportunities for rural America.” Noting that some 12 million Americans live in areas without access to wired broadband, Wheeler said this fact leaves these people “at a disadvantage compared to their connected neighbors.”

Wheeler acknowledged that the FCC doesn’t have immediate answers to the thorny question of how to serve remote areas where it is very costly to build the needed infrastructure. But he explained that the FCC is acquiring the data needed to make “data-driven” decisions and has financed a series of trial projects designed to test various alternatives. He said that as technology evolves, answers for remote rural areas might focus on new mobile or satellite services.

Wheeler reported that Phase I of the FCC’s Connect America Fund (CAF) will “make broadband available to 1.6 million unserved Americans” and that Phase II will connect another 5 million. He said these “rural broadband experiments will help us achieve our goal of delivering world-class voice and broadband networks to rural America.”

Wheeler said the FCC is committed to “unleashing new waves of investment and innovation, which will deliver untold benefits in the form of modern broadband networks for the American people, including rural America. We cannot be a nation of opportunity without networks of opportunity.”

At a time when the FCC is hammering out important new Internet rules, Graves said that “Continued congressional oversight of the FCC is essential to ensure that the concerns and ideas of small firms and those enterprises located in rural America are given due consideration during the regulatory process.”


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