Wheeler’s ‘Moment’: A Call For Power to the People

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler made it clear last week, if it wasn’t already, that he feels broadband is at a “moment” that requires establishing it as the province of the people, not the “gatekeepers,” a term he has been increasingly applying to Internet-service providers.

He made his signal crystal clear in a press conference following an FCC meeting in which the agency’s Democratic majority voted to alter the definition of advanced telecommunications to a faster 25 Megabits per second — a change that alters the broadband map to depict that only about half the U.S. has a choice of high-speed Internet carriers.

Wheeler has cast ISPs — rather than, say, edge providers — in that gatekeeper role, contending that they are terminating monopolies that need regulators to rein them in for the sake of consumers, innovation and competition.

Wheeler’s moves — the effort to regulate broadband under utility-style Title II regulations, boosting broadband speeds, taking aim at usage caps, potentially pre-empting state broadband laws, likely including wireless in new rules and, perhaps, interconnection — are driven by a long view. And that’s unsettling to industry players.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association, for example, said the new 25 Mbps benchmark is a way to justify more regulation of broadband, rather than an “accurate assessment” of the broadband marketplace. The MSO trade group is strongly opposed to Title II and pre-emption.

If Wheeler’s view of ISPs as gatekeepers — and President Obama’s call for regulations under Title II — have done anything, it’s undercut the notion that Wheeler, a former head lobbyist for the NCTA and CTIA-The Wireless Association, would play favorites with those industries, as well as the thought that some Comcast executives’ Obama-friendliness would translate into favors from Washington.

Wheeler refused to comment last week on whether the change to 25 Mbps would make it tougher for the planned Comcast-Time Warner Cable merger to get government approval, but the Nos. 1 and 2 U.S. cable operators’ share of high-speed subscribers just got a boost thanks to that redefinition. Wall Street analysts are still betting on approval of the merger, but the odds have gone down in recent weeks, partly arising from the unsettled regulatory outlook.

Wheeler called the FCC “the public’s representative in the broadband revolution” and said it would use every tool in the toolbox “to build a better broadband future” that is “fast, fair and open for all Americans.”

He said boosting the speed target was one step on that path, but that the FCC had come to a “fork in the road.” The question, he said, is, “Whose Internet is it?”

Wheeler signaled an answer in the form of another question: “How are we going to make sure that, in the broadband future, there are yardsticks in place to determine what is in the best interests of consumers, as opposed to what is in the best interests of gatekeepers?”

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.