Wheeler Wants Broadband to Speed Up

WASHINGTON — Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler appears to be on a collision course with cable operators over broadband speeds, flexing the agency’s muscle under Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act to make it so.

In a speech earlier this month, Wheeler made clear that for his FCC, at least, broadband speeds and Internet-access competition are inextricably entwined. And forget the current definition of broadband as 4 Megabits per second downstream, or even the 10 Mbps the FCC is likely to make its new baseline definition for high-speed Internet.

Speeds of 25 Mbps are the new “table stakes” for a new century, Wheeler said. The city of Boston, which weighed in at the FCC in support of boosting minimum downstream speeds to at least 10 Mbps, has suggested that keeping the current speed is like “fixing an insect in amber.”

Cable operators are pushing back.

On the same day Wheeler was laying down the law on speed, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association was filing comments with the FCC arguing that it should keep the 4 Mbps baseline for “advanced telecommunications.” The agency is required to regularly report on the state of advanced telecommunications under Section 706.

The NCTA isn’t saying speed is not of the essence, but instead that the FCC should take a more nuanced view, maintaining a baseline which can still deliver high-quality voice video and data.

Asked about that assertion in last week’s exclusive interview with Multichannel News, Wheeler said he disagreed, and suggested the new minimum might need to be as fast as 25 Mbps.

The FCC’s Section 706 authority is getting quite a workout lately.

It is being used to justify the potential pre-emption of state laws limiting municipal broadband, which cable operators are not happy with, and as a basis for new Internet-neutrality rules, which cable operators support — at least as an alternative to regulation as a commoncarrier service under Title II of the Telecom Act.

Cable’s concerns with pre-emption and speed boosts are similar. Both could allow for government-funded competition to existing commercial providers via a speed or price overbuild, rather than subsidizing service to entirely unserved homes, which cable companies do not oppose.

As long as the FCC concludes that broadband is not being supplied to all Americans in a reasonable and timely manner, it has what the agency had been reading under former chairman Julius Genachowski as a broad mandate to regulate it into that condition.

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.