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Verizon's Silliman: We Still Support Net Neutrality

Verizon general counsel Craig Silliman says his company supports the principles of network neutrality, but the current fight is about "the jurisdictional hook the FCC used to get there." He also says zero rating is nothing new and likens it to Amazon’s free shipping.

Silliman was being interviewed for C-SPAN's Communicators series.

Verizon was a key player in the ongoing fight, having filed a court challenge to the initial, compromise, non-Title II approach to net neutrality rules that the FCC struck with other ISPs under then FCC chairman Julius Genachowski.

But Silliman pointed out that before the court decisions, Verizon had favored Congress weighing in and codifying the net neutrality principles to "put the whole Title II debate behind us."

He suggested that the end game for some activists had always been Title II, so they fought a congressional solution. He said in hindsight—that being a new Donald Trump Administration almost certain to roll back Title II—that was probably a "bad political calculation."

He said net neutrality principles are still important but can be protected in a "much smarter, much more efficient way" than the FCC's effort, which he characterized as trying to put square pegs into round holes and said applies broadly to issues of FCC jurisdiction, the sort of issues congressional action could have cleared up.

Silliman praised incoming Energy & Commerce Committee chairman Greg Walden (R-Ore.) as "fantastically knowledgeable" about communications issues—he was the chair of the Communications Subcommittee—calling him open and fair minded and would be a "great leader" of the full committee.

He said he thought Congress had the expertise to tackle a rewrite of the Telecommunications Act, which is a way to clear up some of the jurisdictional issues Silliman was referencing. "They have the knowledge and the wherewithal to take on these issues."

But Silliman said rather than "tinkering" with the act, it was time to step back and look holistically at what made sense for protecting competition and consumer protection in a telecom world that has changed dramatically in the last two decades.

"If you are going to change it," he said, "start from a blank sheet of paper and say: 'What am I trying to achieve?'" He said rather than trying to anticipate what is going to happen—nobody has that crystal ball, otherwise they would be playing the stock market, he suggested—the law needs to be designed "not to assume technologies" but based on how best to drive competition and protect consumers.

That means no more cable or wireless "silos." Assume evolution of technology, but let the statute "flex and move." The FCC should do the same, he said. He said as the tech and markets change, the framework of the regulator also needs to change.

Asked to comment on the AT&T-Time Warner deal, Silliman suggested Verizon was applying a different strategy to building its business for the future: "To a large degree, what you see is AT&T is buying a couple of very good assets in DirecTV and now with Time Warner that are some of the traditional winners in the particular content distribution or content creation parts of the ecosystem. Our strategy is more looking at where we believe the content consumption and content distribution and content production is going. Some of the mobile first, highly curated but also highly personalized over-the-top type of short-form videos, for example, that we are doing with go90 [short-form, ad-supported mobile video app]. So, a lot of our investments, whether it is AOL or Yahoo or our investments in AwesomenessTV or Complex Media, those are all about saying this is where we think the puck is going and we're going to skate to where we think the puck is going as opposed to the current distribution and content creation model."

Silliman said he didn't think an AT&T-Time Warner combo would force Verizon to make a big deal as well. He was not ruling out such a deal but said: "Whether we do or don't won't be driven by what AT&T has done,” he said.

Asked about zero rating—which the FCC has suggested to Verizon and AT&T might run afoul of net neutrality rules—Silliman pointed out that the model has been around for a long time, suggesting that watching free broadcast or listening to radio was analogous or Amazon paying for shipping or price breaks on a Wall Street Journal subscription—a WSJ reporter was helping interview him for the show.

He said there was a fundamental model of free transport as a way to encourage consumers to consume more content. "Generally speaking, when consumers get something for free they are pretty happy," he said. He also said he was amused by the critics of zero rating, citing H.L. Mencken's definition of Puritanism as "the haunting fear that someone, somewhere, is happy."

He said zero rating was great for consumers and that ultimately policymakers would conclude the same. That is certainly likely the case under a Trump Administration.

The Silliman episode of The Communicators airs on C-SPAN Saturday, Dec. 10, at 6:30 p.m. ET and again on Monday, Dec. 12, on C-SPAN2 at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET. C-SPAN is a public service funded by the cable industry.

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.