Businesses could lose their choice of cloud services and applications if the incoming administration or the new congress rolls back net neutrality rules, Tom Wheeler, the outgoing chair of the Federal Communications Commission, warned in his final planned speech before stepping down.
Identifying the 2015 open Internet order as one of his signature policy achievements, Wheeler positioned the FCC's net neutrality regulation, which bars ISPs from blocking or slowing transmissions on their networks, as a needed protection for consumers and businesses alike.
"As everything goes into the cloud, the ability to access the cloud free of gatekeepers is essential. If ISPs get to choose which applications and clouds work better than others in terms of access, speed and latency, they will control the cloud future," Wheeler said.
"Whether it's Amazon Web Services or Microsoft Azure or Salesforce.com's integrated cloud-based activities, ISPs free from open access obligations and behavioral oversight can choke growth and innovation, or, at least, demand tribute for passing over their network," he said.
He offered a similar warning on the internet of things, an area of increasing interest in Washington as policymakers warm to the economic, social and environmental potential that could arise from billions of networked devices coming online.
"[T]he growth of the internet of things is another area that depends on the open connectivity of those things," Wheeler said. "If ISPs can decide arbitrarily which IoT device can be connected, or favor their own IoT activity over their competitors, the bright future of IoT dims."
Wheeler, a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless sectors who surprised many FCC observers with his regulatory agenda, gave his address at the Aspen Institute, a think tank where he will sign on as a fellow after leaving the government, making him the sixth outgoing chairman to do so.
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Wheeler's remarks could be seen as something of a rear-guard action ahead of the transition to the new administration, when FCC control will pass into the hands of republicans who are opposed to net neutrality regulations.
In stressing the business implications of the open internet order, Wheeler seemed to broaden the scope of the net neutrality debate, which has typically focused on the consumer implications of an ISP slowing the transmission of a popular application, or entering into paid prioritization arrangements with content providers to deliver their traffic on a fast lane. Both scenarios are prohibited under the FCC's rule.
And Wheeler did call out AT&T and Verizon for their so-called "zero-rating" policies, where they exempt favored content and services from customers' data caps.
But he made the broader point that unraveling the open internet order could undermine the commission's other work in regulating broadband providers, such as the privacy regulations it advanced under Wheeler's tenure as chairman.
And he noted that, in all likelihood, there will be efforts in the new congress to roll back recent FCC regulations, which could be a more effective avenue for net neutrality critics than trying to undo the rules within the commission, where procedural hurdles loom.
Wheeler pointed to industry figures reporting substantial investment in broadband infrastructure before and since the enactment of the open internet order as evidence that the regulation had not chilled capital expenditures in network infrastructure as opponents had warned.
"Where's the fire?" he asked, painting a binary choice for policymakers going forward.
"It now falls to a new set of regulators, to a new FCC and to those who advocate before it and the Congress to determine the road that they want to take from here," Wheeler said. "We are at a fork in that road. One path leads forward and the other leads back to relitigating solutions that are demonstrably working."