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Net neutrality critics are flat-out wrong, says FCC chief

Chairman Tom Wheeler shouts "No, no, no, no!" The new regulations won't dictate carriers' rates, impose tariffs or meddle with their business.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler vehemently defends his Net neutrality policy at Mobile World Congress 2015. Stephen Shankland/CNET

BARCELONA -- Tom Wheeler, chairman of the US Federal Communications Commission, today defended his agency's move to regulate the Internet, ensuring that broadband players would be unaffected by his "light touch" approach to the rules.

"This is no more regulating the Internet than the First Amendment regulates free speech in our country," Wheeler said in a fireside chat Tuesday at the Mobile World Congress trade show.

His timing is either opportune or awkward, depending on your perspective. Wheeler's appearance comes just days after the FCC voted to fold Internet service and wireless carriers under regulations originally applied to a landline telephone monopoly, giving the agency unprecedented power over the industry. Thanks to the heightened rhetoric on both sides and high-profile figures such as comedian John Oliver weighing in on the issue, Wheeler has become the de facto standard bearer for Net neutrality -- the notion that all Internet traffic is treated equally.

Many of the US cable and telecom providers -- some of which were at the conference -- oppose the FCC decision, arguing that the rules are onerous and would curb investment in future network deployments.

Feeding Internet service providers' anxiety: The move to reclassify broadband as a telecommunications service under Title II of the 1934 Communications Act. A key tenet of Title II is the embrace of "common carrier," or the concept that all customers must be served fairly and equally.

The broadband industry fears another part of Title II, which gives the FCC the authority to set prices.

"No, no, no, no!" Wheeler shouted at the moderator, reiterating that his rules wouldn't dictate rates, impose tariffs, open up carriers' networks to competitors or meddle with their business.

Ralph de la Vega, CEO of AT&T's business and mobility unit, said he'll withhold judgment until he learns more about how the FCC will apply Title II.

"Sometimes it's the nuances and details that explain whether there is a concern in an area or not," de la Vega said in an interview. "Until everybody reads the fine print and understands it, you won't really be able comment in detail.

"I plan to read [the regulations] cover to cover."

It's not just carriers and cable companies that object. Finland-based network equipment maker Nokia Networks, which counts those companies as customers, doesn't like the new rules, either.

"Net neutrality as it exists today needs to change," said Nokia Networks CEO Rajeev Suri. It will be hard to ensure rock-solid reliability if carriers can't prioritize some network traffic, he said. Suri also reiterated carriers' position that the rules will discourage them from investing in a beefed up infrastructure.

"Yes, it's pro-consumer in the short term, but it won't be pro-consumer in the long term if you don't focus on investment," Suri said. He likened the situation to airlines offering both business-class and economy seating at the same time.

Wheeler said he sought to balance the needs of consumers and innovators with those of the carriers to ensure that his approach to Title II wouldn't harm investment. He said he based the model on the the kind of regulation that currently governs the mobile voice business, which has flourished. There were originally 48 sections in Title II. The FCC removed 18 sections of the law for the wireless voice industry and has removed 27 sections for the latest order.

"That's about as far from the old-style, monopoly-style regulation as you can get," he said.

-Stephen Shankland contributed to this report.