NCTA's Powell: Cable Is Still in Powerful Place

Michael Powell, president of NCTA: The Internet & Television Association, says that while churn is inevitable, doom and gloom scenarios are not. "As long as Internet is the foundation of all of the opportunities and choices, that still provides a pretty powerful place for cable in the home."

Powell was being interviewed for The Communicators series on C-SPAN, which is a public service backed by cable operators nationwide.

He signaled that the new FCC chairman was a visionary in that he sees the need for light-touch regs and for treating both networks and edge providers as important to the internet ecosystem's virtuous cycle of investment and innovation.

Powell covered a range of topics, including net neutrality and the impact of a new administration and FCC chairman, Powell is a former Republican chairman himself.

Asked what the change would mean, Powell said he was a Pai fan. Given that Pai spent several years at the FCC—he has been both a staffer and commissioner—Powell said he understands the institution and the issues. "There is not a long learning curve," he said, which means things can happen pretty quickly.

Pai has been busy undoing some of former FCC chairman Tom Wheeler's late-term actions, including the issuance of reports and decisions.

Powell said Pai was more the norm than the exception among recent chairmen. "He is more in line with most chairmen of the last 20 years, he said, by which he said he meant he has a "very committed understanding that both infrastructure and edge providers are of equal importance to what we call the Internet ecosystem."

He called that being reasserted "valuable." Chairman Wheeler focused on ISPs as the gatekeepers, saying that while folks had choices not to use edge providers, they had little choice in ISPs.

Powell said that innovation is critical to networks, not just edge providers and signaled he thought Pai got that.

He called Pai a visionary, that vision being of a light-touch approach that was lacking in his Democratic predecessor. He called that understanding that the market moves at lightning speed and that there is a "huge amount" of futility in some regulatory proceedings because by the time they wrap up, the market has moved because businesses can't sit on their decisions waiting for regulators.

Asked by if there is a way to de-politicize the issue of network neutrality in a town where partisanship is the current political currency, he said that one way would be to divide the Open Internet order decision under Wheeler into two parts. He said there was essentially no division on one part—preserving an open Internet. But the other decision was more accurately described as a power grab in reclassifying ISPs as common carriers, which gave the FCC "unbounded authority to regulate the Internet in ways they hadn't before."

He said that second part is both highly controversial and highly unnecessary and that the problem comes in conflating the two. 

He said NCTA's advocacy in favor of net neutrality protections has been "unflinching" over the years. As chairman, Powell enshrined network neutrality principles but stopped short of making them bright-line rules, which squared with his philosophy of not trying to encase technological quicksilver in regulatory cement.

He said that if the nation wants infrastructure to increase, rural America to get "less uneconomical" to serve, 5G to be successful, then use regulatory models that incent that, not applying common carrier regs, which he said were a mistake, are a mistake, and will be if not corrected.

He pointed out that he was both the chairman that talked about those internet freedom principles—and did something about them in his statement of consumer rights—but also the chairman who classified internet service as an information service. "That was the compact. The Internet/ISP community would be lightly regulated in order to incent them to move from their traditional infrastructures to this new one… but that they had to stay cognizant of the critical importance of openness to the consumer."

Powell said blocking and throttling have never been a compelling strategy not just because his members are good hearted but because it also makes the most economic sense. "It is hostile to  your customers," he said. "You are better off serving them with a high-quality, high-throughput structure."

Powell, a former Republican FCC chairman, said he was as surprised as anyone by the results of the Presidential election and signaled that the D.C. insiders were as surprised as the public at large. He said political consultants and late-night calls about the election had led him to believe it was "going in a different direction."

But he said he has been through lots of Presidents and that while, NCTA may have anticipated preparing for one political environment, it was not very hard to shift gears to preparing "for a very different one," one he said holds opportunities for the industry.

The Communicators episode airs at 6:30 p.m. onMarch 11 on C-SPAN and on March 13 on C-SPAN 2 at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.