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What The End To Net Neutrality Means For Internet Streaming


The Federal Communications Commission will vote next month to remove nearly every rule on the books that protects the idea of net neutrality. Basically that means Internet service providers like Comcast or AT&T could go from being neutral gateways to everything on the Internet to gatekeepers. They could decide to load some sites more slowly or impose fees for faster service. The rules being repealed are just 2 years old. The FCC's Republican chair, Ajit Pai, says they've hurt the online economy. Here's what he told NPR's Morning Edition today.


AJIT PAI: The Internet wasn't broken in 2015 when these heavy-handed regulations were adopted. And once we remove them, I think we'll continue to see the infrastructure investment that will benefit digital consumers and entrepreneurs alike.

HU: Let's get a response to that from Pai's predecessor. Tom Wheeler chaired the FCC when it approved these rules in 2015. Tom Wheeler, thanks for joining us.

TOM WHEELER: Thanks for having me.

HU: Well, first, net neutrality is a term that can cause our eyes to glaze over. But obviously it's been central to your career. So how do you explain it to people in your life to get folks engaged on the issue?

WHEELER: We actually said that we need to talk about this in terms of the open Internet rather than the abstract term net neutrality because that really describes what's going on here. We're talking about - is the Internet, which is the most powerful and pervasive platform in the history of the planet - is it going to be open to all comers, or is it going to be a toll road that the consumer has to pay to get special services or that service providers have to pay to be able to reach the consumer? And what we said was, no, this is an asset that is key to the economy of the 21st century, and it must be open to all.

HU: Your successor though, Chairman Ajit Pai, says the Internet wasn't broken in 2015 when you and the commission approved these rules. He calls them heavy-handed. So can you point to anything that got better for consumers over the past two years because of these regulations?

WHEELER: After these rules were adopted, we have seen investment in broadband increase. We have seen VC investment in new startups that use the Internet increase. And we have seen an expansion in the kinds of services that are available to consumers. This has been a success.

The Internet was indeed broken before the 2015 rules were put in place because the companies were blocking content. They were throttling content. And they even went to court to tell the court under oath that they intended to have fast lanes and slow lanes so that consumers would have to pay more. So with all due respect to the current chairman, he is making up something out of whole cloth that was denied under oath (laughter) by the Internet service providers in court.

HU: So what would be the effect on consumers now under the changes that are proposed?

WHEELER: Oh, wow. If you like your cable company, then you'll love what's going to happen to the Internet because suddenly the rules - instead of being open, the rules now will resemble very similar to what your rules are if you're a cable company where the cable company decides who you can get access to, what your prices will be.

HU: I'm curious, though. Something confusing in all of this is that both sides of the debate say that they support the idea of an open Internet. So sort through this for us. What's the debate over if both sides say, hey, we love the open Internet?

WHEELER: I think you've got to start with one key fact, and that is what we found when we were developing the open Internet rules - is that two-thirds of American consumers have at most one choice as to who they can get their Internet access from. That means we're dealing with a monopoly. And when those monopolies turn around and say, oh, we're for an open Internet, what they're really saying is, we're for an open Internet because we can make the rules. And we said, no, we think that the representative of the consumer ought to make those rules.

HU: Tom Wheeler served as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from November 2013 to January of this year. He's now a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government. Tom Wheeler, thanks for coming on the program.

WHEELER: Thanks, Elise. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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