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Wheeler to Cable: Stop Saying No

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler wants the cable industry to act more like the feisty, innovative underdog it was when he led the industry's main trade group 30 to 35 years ago.

Speaking at the industry's annual Internet & Television Expo (INTX) show in Boston earlier this week for likely his last time as Federal Communications Commission (FCC) chief, Wheeler warned cable against trying to obstruct the commission's work on issues like opening up pay-TV set-top boxes to third parties, regulating how ISPs manage consumer privacy and setting rates on special access for businesses. Without going into detail, he implied that these are all fights that cable would surely lose unless it cooperated with the agency on finding solutions to consumer problems. (See 'Unlock the Box' Vote Is Just the Beginning.)

"We understand that those who are the incumbents never like change," he said, drawing on his research experience as an amateur historian. But, he noted, "those who try to stop the change always fail. And I don't mean most of the time."

Earlier at the show, National Cable & Telecommunications Association (NCTA) President Michael Powell denounced the Commission's work under Wheeler in no uncertain terms. In his keynote address, Powell accused the agency of conducting a "relentless regulatory assault" on the cable industry.

"The policy blows we are weathering are not modest regulatory corrections," said Powell, a former FCC chairman himself. "They have been thundering, tectonic shifts that have crumbled decades of settled law and policy."

But Wheeler, a long-time Washington regulatory hand who recollected the times when he lobbied Powell at the FCC, dismissed these comments as just overheated lobbying rhetoric that might be expected from the NCTA head. "I think that the way in which lobbying campaigns tend to work these days is, first you set up a scenario of 'there's too much being done; we're being persecuted,'" he said. "Then you talk about what I call 'imaginary horribles' -- things that could happen if they do this or that."

Instead of trying to obstruct the Commission's work on behalf of consumers, businesses and open markets, Wheeler strongly advised cable to act constructively and cooperatively with the agency. He said it comes down to a choice of: "Are you going to say no and do everything possible [to block it], or are you going to say: 'How are we going to make this work for consumers first?'"

Recalling his own tenure as NCTA chief from 1979 to 1984, Wheeler claimed that he presided over an upstart, scrapping industry that championed competition, innovation and the consumer in its uphill fight against the established broadcasting and phone industries, rather than seeking to hamper rivals with undue regulation. "That was at a point in time where the cable industry was the voice of competition and innovation," he said. "And in those days, those who didn't want the industry to change were broadcasters, Hollywood and the telephone industry."

Wheeler also reminded cable executives in the sparsely attended session that he sided with the industry last year on the issue of effective competition for video services, which had the effect of deregulating local pay-TV rate regulation for cable operators. In that controversial three-two decision, Wheeler, a Democratic appointee of Pres. Obama three years ago, actually voted with the two Republican FCC commissioners against his Democratic colleagues.

"It should be all about government promoting competition and stepping out of the way when there is competition," he said. "But government has a role to say, 'Excuse me, first we have to get to competition.'"

Not surprisingly, Wheeler received little applause from the cable audience, unlike the two Republican commissioners who spoke the previous day and denounced Wheeler's rune in just as harsh terms as Powell. But he didn't seem too perturbed by that, dismissing it as just angry rhetoric as well.

— Alan Breznick, Cable/Video Practice Leader, Light Reading

mendyk 5/30/2016 | 11:06:30 AM
Re: The truth as they see it I don't think cable operators are doing any worse now regarding customer issues than they did when Wheeler was involved. I'd go so far as to say the industry has improved a bit, mainly because it has been forced to by competition.
kq4ym 5/29/2016 | 11:08:25 AM
Re: The truth as they see it Wheeler's comment that "cable would surely lose unless it cooperated with the agency on finding solutions to consumer problems." seems pretty harsh in many ways. It's almost like Wheeler believes he has a crystal ball or at least some insight into what consumer problems will be and maybe his own agenda for solving them?
KBode 5/25/2016 | 10:15:19 AM
Wheeler "Not surprisingly, Wheeler received little applause from the cable audience, unlike the two Republican commissioners who spoke the previous day and denounced Wheeler's rune in just as harsh terms as Powell. But he didn't seem too perturbed by that, dismissing it as just angry rhetoric as well."

I'm pretty impressed by Wheeler's toughness. This is a guy that's been dragged repeatedly in front of hearings that have no purpose other than to punish the FCC for standing up to big ISPs. He's also been mercilously attacked by the industry as some kind of horrid villain. 

Yet he's been cool as a cucumber throughout. Wish I had a fifth of his patience.
KBode 5/25/2016 | 10:13:28 AM
Re: The truth as they see it Seriously. I don't know how anybody can take Powell seriously when he sat on his hands for four years pretending there were ABSOLUTELY NO problems in the sector that needed addressing.
mendyk 5/20/2016 | 12:57:59 PM
The truth as they see it Alan -- Did anyone in the room laugh when Mr. Wheeler referred to the early '80s as a time that the cable industry championed competition, innovation, and the consumer? As for Mr. Powell, doing nothing seems to be his preferred MO.
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