FCC Chairman warns Republicans against net neutrality repeal

In his last speech as chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler defends his controversial open internet rules that prohibit broadband providers from favoring their own services at the expense of their competitors.

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Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler testifies before a House subcommittee in March 2015 defending his agency's controversial net neutrality rules.

Chip Somodevilla, Getty Images

Don't mess with net neutrality. That was the message from departing FCC chairman Tom Wheeler Friday in his last speech as head of the agency.

Wheeler warned the incoming Republican administration against a hasty repeal of the controversial open internet rules. He said getting rid of the rules and taking a "hands-off approach" to regulating broadband and wireless networks would be a mistake and a move backward. He added that changing the rules would threaten innovation.

"The open internet is currently the law of the land," he said. "Tampering with the rules means taking away protections consumers and the online world enjoy today."

Net neutrality is the principle that all traffic on the Internet should be treated equally. Whether you're checking Facebook, posting pictures to Instagram, shopping on Amazon, streaming Netflix movies or watching cat videos on YouTube, all the information traveling across the Internet to you and from you should be treated the same. This means that your Internet service provider -- whether that's a broadband company like Comcast or a wireless carrier like AT&T or Verizon -- can't block or slow down your access to that content. And it means that these companies shouldn't favor their own content and services over their competitors' offerings.

Supporters of net neutrality, like consumer advocates and internet companies like Google and Netflix, say these rules protect consumers and ensure smaller companies can access the internet to develop cool new services and applications. Wheeler, who has become net neutrality's staunchest supporter since taking over as FCC chairman in 2013, says that broadband companies are the gatekeepers to the internet and should not be allowed to abuse their power.

"Those who build and operate networks have both the incentive and the ability to use the power of the network to benefit themselves even if doing so hurts their own customers and the greater public interest," Wheeler said.

Republicans along with internet service providers, like AT&T and Comcast, argue that the FCC's rules are bad public policy because the agency now regulates broadband like the old-style telephone network. They say this discourages investment in network infrastructure.

But Wheeler refuted these claims in his speech. He recounted that AT&T's CEO reportedly told President-elect Donald Trump in a meeting just yesterday that his company had been the country's leading investor of capital for each of the last five years, which included the two years since the Open Internet rules were adopted.

"Network investment is up, investment in innovative services is up, and ISPs revenues - and stock prices - are at record levels," he said. "So, where's the fire?"

With that said, Wheeler's warnings are likely falling on deaf ears. There's not a lot that Wheeler or other Democrats can do to stop Republicans from striking down the foundation of the net neutrality rules. Once Wheeler steps down on January 20, the Republicans will hold a 2-1 majority. Commissioners Mike O'Rielly and Ajit Pai, who will remain at the FCC, have already indicated they want to dismantle net neutrality. And Trump's transition team is also full of opponents to the rules.

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