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Editorial: Wasteland Revisted

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler smacked the cable industry upside the head last week with an all-too-familiar message, making it clear that broadband dominance had been the deciding factor in the commission’s decision that a combined Comcast/TWC deal was a no-go.

In a speech to the INTX show in Chicago, Wheeler referred to a broadband competition desert, and used as a metaphor the words etched into a paperweight the NCTA had produced when Wheeler was president from 1979-84. The mantra read, “Plant a flower in the vast wasteland.”

At the time, that was meant to urge cable to fill the programming quality void, making reference to FCC chairman Newton Minow’s early-1960s call to broadcasters to improve their fare.

Wheeler turned that last week into an indictment of broadband competition, at least at the speeds he has said are necessary for full broadband digital citizenship, or something along those lines.

If there had been any doubt—and there wasn’t—the chairman’s view of what either spurs or depresses broadband competition is the prime directive of this FCC, and that includes taking aim at all obstacles, whether imagined or anticipated.

The view may be understandable, given the ubiquity of broadband, but the message is being delivered with a heavy hand. More likely, it’s heavy hands, with one hand slapping Internet service providers and the other saluting edge providers and their equal, if different, power over the Internet. Without Web content, a broadband network is a bridge to nowhere. And as current NCTA president Michael Powell has pointed out, without a network, there is no edge to provide.

“By bringing competitive alternatives to television viewers, this industry did just that—and the video business was changed forever,” Wheeler told a silent audience in Chicago. What few applause lines there were went unapplauded, despite pauses that would have allowed for it. “Then your industry went on to upgrade, compete with the telcos and dominate broadband. Now the question is whether consumers will have competitive alternatives for broadband. To harken back to what you did before, will you now plant a flower in the competitive broadband desert?”

Nobody seemed to be in a flower-planting mood afterward. A panel of top cable CEOs immediately following Wheeler onstage became a quasi-revival meeting, with the crowd whooping and clapping at counterattacks on Wheeler. Cox president Patrick Esser drew a cheer by quoting anti-regulatory sentiment by talk radio host and onetime Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain. Liberty Global chief Michael Fries pronounced himself “baffled” by Wheeler’s “terrible legislation.”

That said, the chairman does have a point about competition—but so do ISPs worried about Title II overregulation, and regulating on the basis of anticipated harms rather than actual ones. In any event, poking the industry in the eye, or whacking them with their own paperweight at their annual convention, may not be the best way to make that point.