Wheeler’s Need for Speed FCC CHAIR

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler last week planted his stake in the ground for promoting competitive high-speed Internet service, saying the agency’s current 4 Megabitsper- second standard represented yesterday’s broadband and that wired broadband needs more “meaningful” competition.

Wheeler outlined a four-point agenda that he said would be the commission’s North Star for ensuring that meaningful competition. While he said he preferred incentivizing competition, he made it clear he would regulate if necessary, suggesting that could include pre-empting state limits on municipal broadband and using net-neutrality rules to advance the agenda.

That overarching outline came in a Sept. 4 speech at startup incubator 1776 in Washington, D.C. (its founding partners include Comcast Business and Microsoft), at which Wheeler said he did not come to criticize, but laid into cable operators and other ISPs nonetheless.

The speech was partly a recap of FCC actions and a restatement of his regulatory philosophy, but could also be interpreted as a signal to his critics on the left that he was committed to their ideals of an open Internet and broadband competition. It was also a synthesis of the FCC’s increasing focus on speed as the new deployment metric.

He suggested it took competition from Google Fiber and others to get cable to start boosting speeds. “[M]obile broadband is just not a full substitute for fixed broadband,” he said.

But while positive, cable’s Gigabit push is not pervasive, he said. “We can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so in a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans.”

Wheeler said even where competition exists, the difficulty of switching between carriers, such as early-termination fees and equipment-rental costs, reduced its effectiveness.

“And, if those disincentives to competition weren’t enough,” he added, “the media is full of stories of consumers’ struggles to get ISPs to allow them to drop service.”

Wheeler as much as said it would be the FCC’s mission to bring competition up to speed, suggesting 25 Mbps would be the new “table stakes” in communications.

He also issued a network-neutrality warning. “[L]astmile power cannot be a lever for gaining an unfair advantage,” he said. “Second, rules of the road can provide guidance to all players and, by restraining future actions that would harm the public interest, incent more investment and more innovation.”

Wheeler said the FCC will adhere to the following four principles of his “Agenda for Broadband Competition:”

• “Where competition exists, the commission will protect it.” Examples are the FCC’s signal it was not likely to approve the Sprint-T-Mobile merger and the way the FCC is setting up IP transition trials so that “changes in network technology should not be a license to limit competition.”

• “Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it.” Wheeler cited reserving low-band spectrum in the broadcast incentive auction for competitors to the top two wireless carriers and the “entire open-Internet proceeding” as a way to prevent barriers that could be erected by last-mile providers (ISPs).

• “Where meaningful competition is not available, the commission will work to create it.” That includes expanding unlicensed wireless, which the FCC has sought to do in various bands; however, it also includes Wheeler’s support of pre-empting state laws limiting municipal broadband (see Rules).

• “Where competition cannot be expected to exist, we must shoulder the responsibility of promoting the deployment of broadband.” He recferenced universal service efforts to bring better broadband to rural areas to prevent the creation of a new digital “speed” divide.

The National Cable & Telecommunications Association’s response to Wheeler’s speech about spurring competition was: Bring it on (and don’t impede it with a Title II classification of ISPs). “The cable industry is committed to meeting consumer demand for a world-class Internet experience and competing in the marketplace with all wired and wireless Internet providers,” the NCTA said, citing cable’s investment of $210 billion in broadband since 1996 and the availability of 100-Mbps Internet service.

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.