ISPs

What FCC's Wheeler will do about net neutrality is anybody's guess

November 1, 2013: 3:53 PM ET

The outcome of Verizon's lawsuit against the FCC might do more to determine the future of the Internet than the FCC's new chairman possibly can.

131101125416-tom-wheeler-fcc-620xaFORTUNE -- Tom Wheeler's appointment as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission was about as friction-free as could be, despite the fact that Sen. Ted Cruz threatened to block the nomination over his supposed worries about rules governing disclosure of who pays for political ads. A meeting with Wheeler seems to have calmed Cruz's fears.

Otherwise, Wheeler faced little opposition: He's a former industry lobbyist, but he also has spoken out on issues enough to reveal that he's not in anybody's pocket, and is much more of a policy wonk than a player. He won endorsements from both industry and public-interest groups.

His effectiveness, though, might end up being determined less by how he runs the FCC than by circumstance. That's especially true when it comes to network neutrality rules, which bar Internet service providers from favoring or disfavoring particular flows of online traffic. For instance, Comcast (CMCSA) can't slow down video feeds from Netflix (NFLX), or speed up feeds from NBC, which it owns. Net neutrality advocates warn that if ISPs are given power to discriminate among sources of data, the Internet will cease to exist as we know it and will be just another medium largely controlled by a handful of giant companies.

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What happens with net neutrality might end up being determined by a lawsuit filed by Verizon (VZ) against the FCC claiming that the rules violate speech rights. Wheeler has represented both the cable and the wireless industries as a lobbyist, and those are the industries that want more power to control the data that flows over their networks.

But that doesn't necessarily mean Wheeler won't fight hard to preserve the FCC's rules. He represented both of those industries long before either of them were providing Internet service. At his nomination hearing earlier this year, he extolled the benefits of light regulation of industry, but he also said he favors "protecting competition with appropriate oversight to see that it flourishes."

He'll have to employ that worldview on a whole bunch of different matters other than Net neutrality, including mergers and, perhaps what will perhaps be his most challenging and complex task: managing the upcoming spectrum auctions.

For all the scrutiny he's gotten, and for all the support he's won, he remains a bit of a cipher. It's hard to know just what he'll do.

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