FCC’s Wheeler makes net neutrality case before global carriers

Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler said on Tuesday that he doesn’t put much credibility in claims that U.S. carriers would stop investing in their networks in his new era of network neutrality. Taking the stage at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona before a global carrier audience, he said that the U.S. telecom industry’s actions speak far louder than its public statements.

He pointed out that [company]Verizon[/company] in 2008 bid heavily and won for its initial 4G spectrum in 2008 even though it came with open internet stipulations similar to those implemented under the FCC’s new neutrality guidelines. Wheeler noted that this year’s 4G auction raised a record $41.3 billion even though the specter of the then-upcoming net neutrality vote had hung over the entire bidding process. [company]AT&T[/company] and [company]Verizon[/company] — two of the rules’ biggest opponents — spent a combined $28.6 billion in that auction.

“I don’t think any of the CFOs bidding in the auction just fell off the turnip truck,” Wheeler said after GSM Association Director General Anne Bouverot asked him whether it was fair to implement net neutrality right after those operators spent billions on new spectrum. Carriers bid on the licenses knowing full well that spectrum would be needed for the future growth of their networks whether net neutrality has passed or not, Wheeler said.

He also added [company]Sprint[/company], [company]T-Mobile[/company] and [company]Google[/company] Fiber had all committed to investing in their networks after the new regulations went into affect. Wheeler repeated many of the arguments he’s made for net neutrality over the last few months, though to a global audience unfamiliar with the fiery policy debate in the U.S., the information was largely new.

One question might have thrown Wheeler for a bit of a loop though. Bouverot said many of the countries represented at MWC might object to the nature of the FCC rules because their governments support developmental programs to bring cheap or free internet services to their unconnected citizens. Though she didn’t mention it by name, I assume she was referring to, the founder of which, [company]Facebook[/company]’s Mark Zuckerberg, had spoken on the same stage Monday.

Wheeler responded that U.S. net neutrality rules could take those types of programs could be judged on a case-by-case basis, but he didn’t elaborate, and Bouverot didn’t press him. Under the rules, though, it’s unclear whether could operate in the U.S. as it zero-rates, or exempts from all data charges, all mobile internet traffic to Facebook and a handful of other sites. Zero rating falls under the FCC’s general conduct rule which gives it the authority to ban practices that favor one service or app over another, which clearly does.