US President Barack Obama

Obama gives FCC political cover to regulate broadband

US President Barack Obama. Image: IDGNS

11 November 2014

US President Barack Obama, in a strong net neutrality policy statement, has given the Federal Communications Commission the political cover it needs to move ahead with new rules by reclassifying broadband as a regulated utility.

Obama’s policy statement, released Monday, calls on the FCC to take the controversial step of reclassifying broadband and impose telephone-style regulations on the service. While the FCC is an independent agency, Obama’s policy statement takes some heat off FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler as he leans toward reclassifying broadband, said several telecom law experts, both for and against reclassification.

Obama’s new statement may be intended both to nudge the FCC toward broadband reclassification and give Wheeler some space to make it happen, said Ed Black, president and CEO of the Computer and Communications Industry Association, a trade group that supports strong net neutrality rules.

“There’s a real issue of historical legacy here,” Black said. “You don’t want to be the president, and I don’t think you want to be the FCC chairman, who would be looked back upon as the ones who ended net neutrality for the Internet.”

Obama’s policy statement is the president’s most specific net neutrality plan, and his first to directly mention broadband reclassification, since Wheeler moved to pass new net neutrality rules earlier this year.

The statement shows what Obama believes to be “the right answer on a tough policy question,” said Alan Davidson, vice president for technology policy at strategy at the New America Foundation, a think tank that supports strong net neutrality rules. Obama has also “given some real political cover to the commission to do the right thing,” he added.

In earlier statements, Obama has said he generally supports strong net neutrality rules, but his new proposal comes just days after news reports that Wheeler is considering a hybrid net neutrality approach that would reclassify one piece of broadband as a regulated utility.

Hybrid approach
Many advocates of strong net neutrality rules decried a hybrid approach, saying it wouldn’t go far enough to protect broadband customers. A spokeswoman for Wheeler said he’s open to a range of net neutrality approaches, but Wheeler, in a statement Monday, acknowledged that FCC staffers have been exploring hybrid regulatory approaches.

Obama’s proposal will become part of the FCC’s record in its net neutrality proceeding, Wheeler said in a statement released shortly after Obama’s proposal was made public. Still, reclassification raises some legal questions that the commission needs time to address, including what parts of Title II regulations the FCC would apply to broadband, he said.

Wheeler will seek reactions to Obama’s plan from Congress and fellow commissioners, he said.

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