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Editorial: Cheer for the Chairman

It’s no great surprise that Federal Communications Commission chairman Julius Genachowski did not come to the National Cable & Telecommunications Association show last week with a chip on his shoulder, ready to pick a fight over broadband deployment or lecture the industry on programming access.

Such visits are more a chance to pitch an agenda, mixed with gentle importuning, and praise for industry action that dovetails with it. But given any “bury or praise” scenarios, it was nice to see the chairman come down more on the latter than the former.

At presstime, the FCC had just circulated its video competition report -- following word of its imminence several weeks ago. The report traditionally finds that, despite competition from satellite and telco and now, increasingly, over-thetop video, the cable industry is still too concentrated to warrant removing some legacy regulations. If it stays true to form, releasing it immediately in advance of the NCTA show would have provided another flashpoint for the chairman’s visit.

Of course, if the FCC wants to be consistent, the report should mirror its recent pitch to a court, to wit: “The past 20 years have seen significant market changes since 1992, when cable held a virtual MVPD monopoly. Direct broadcast satellite service (DBS) now claims nearly 30 percent of the MVPD market…and the cable share of the MVPD market has fallen steadily.”

That sounds like reason to rethink some of those cable regs as the FCC conducts its regulatory review, per President Obama’s instructions to get rid of regs that stand in the way of economic growth or have outlived their purpose. Genachowski appears willing to buck the public activist groups that seem to see villains in every executive suite and monopoly and duopoly demons where there is, in fact, cutthroat competition. But we will save that plaudit for when the FCC concludes, as it should in this report, that cable, and broadcasting for that matter, face strong competition from a host of outlets.

For now, the applause goes to some reality checks at last week’s Cable Show. The chairman provided strong support to cable operators’ decision to get together to allow customers access to Wi-Fi hot spots. Rather than see it as collusion, he viewed it as consumer-friendly sharing, the kind of roaming arrangement the FCC has promoted. He also weighed into the broadband usage-pricing debate on the side of Comcast and others that are experimenting with different price points for bandwidth usage.

As Genachowski rightly pointed out, the other side of charging heavier users more is that lighter users can get a break on their bills. It’s not a new position: The chairman has consistently said tiered pricing can be consumer-friendly, and the FCC’s Open Internet order explicitly refrained from classifying it as a form of discrimination, also pointing out that it could encourage more effi cient bandwidth use and provide price breaks to lighter users.

We’ll admit that in these instances, the industry’s interests dovetail with the chairman’s push for more freedom to roam on wireless networks, and his affection for anything that promotes broadband and more efficient bandwidth use. But when selfinterest, business interests and the public’s interest also dovetail, everybody wins.