Keeping the Internet open is a high priority for the FCC -- so high that the agency will closely monitor the sponsored content program that AT&T announced this week for its mobile data network.
In his first speech in Silicon Valley on Thursday, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler laid out his Internet philosophy and made openness a key part of it.
"Not unlike how the radio stations of the 1920s needed to be protected from technical interference, today's entrepreneurs need to have a fair opportunity to reach their customers over the biggest technological channel of them all -- the Internet," Wheeler said in a prepared copy of his remarks provided by the FCC. He spoke at the Computer History Museum in Mountain View.
"No one in the Valley needs to be convinced of the importance for innovation and overall societal welfare of our broadband networks," Wheeler said. "Keeping them open for any and all lawful uses is a major policy imperative."
AT&T's plans to let mobile content providers cover the cost of delivering some data to subscribers, leaving non-sponsored content subject to monthly data caps, brought that issue to the fore this week, Wheeler said. AT&T unveiled sponsored content earlier this week at the International CES trade show, saying it would work like toll-free long-distance phone numbers. Critics immediately pounced on the idea, saying it could put smaller content providers at a disadvantage against those that could afford to sponsor their own sites and streams.
The FCC's open Internet order on net neutrality didn't discourage such a program, but it called for the agency to keep a close watch, Wheeler said.
"I am not advocating intervention unless there is an unmistakable warrant for it," Wheeler said. "But I am committed to maintaining our networks as conduits for commerce large and small, as factors of production for innovative services and products, and for channels of all the forms of speech protected by the First Amendment."
Wheeler also left the door open to a continued government role in making broadband widely available.
"The pursuit of legitimate private gain may not be sufficient to meet the national interest in the creation of robust broadband networks in all parts of America," Wheeler said. The high cost of broadband networks and the large scale needed to make them efficient could limit the number of competing providers in an area, he said.
But Wheeler advocated the power of the market in the FCC's planned incentive auctions for spectrum in the 600MHz band, planned for mid-2015. In those auctions, TV stations will be able to sell some or all of their channels for use by other applications, including unlicensed use. That frequency auction and two others coming up all should add some unlicensed spectrum that will encourage innovation, he said in a speech at CES on Wednesday.