FCC's Wheeler: 'Internet Will Remain an Open Pathway'



LOS ANGELES -- The Cable Show -- In a blistering speech at The Cable Show on Wednesday, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler forcefully restated his agency's commitment to an open Internet. "Our goal is rules that will encourage broadband providers to continually upgrade service for all," Wheeler said. "We will follow the court's blueprint for achieving this, and I must warn you that we will look skeptically on exceptions."

Importantly, Wheeler also announced that, even though he believes the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) 's current path will produce effective rules for managing broadband, that "does not mean I will hesitate to use Title II if warranted." He was referring to the idea of reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service -- and therefore regulating it much more heavily than it is today.

The tone of the speech was undoubtedly in response to the recent outcry over the chairman's proposed plan to allow broadband providers to create and charge for network "fast lanes" for customers like Netflix. Wheeler addressed this issue directly by saying, "If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have nots, we will use every power at our disposal to stop it." (See FCC's 'Middle Ground' Already Under Attack.)

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler makes his point.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler makes his point.

One issue in the debate over selling premium access to last-mile bandwidth is the fact that there is no visibility into how that capacity is allocated between the public Internet and private, managed services. On that front, broadband providers could end up with more incentive to invest in and improve services for commercial customers while letting performance degrade for consumers.

However, Wheeler made it very clear that he has no plans to let that happen. He pointed out that there is very limited regulation today as far as broadband is concerned, but he suggested in no uncertain terms that, if providers don't keep up their end of the bargain to provide a high-quality service to consumers, the regulatory situation could change dramatically.

He also gave a nod to municipal broadband efforts. "If municipal governments… want to pursue [selling broadband service], they shouldn't be inhibited by state laws. I believe the FCC has the power… to prevent state laws that ban competition from community broadband."

Repeatedly, Wheeler emphasized the mantra of "competition, competition, competition." However, perhaps ironically, in a panel following the chairman's speech on stage, Comcast Corp. (Nasdaq: CMCSA, CMCSK) CEO Brian Roberts and Charter Communications Inc. CEO Tom Rutledge were spotlighted for recently announced plans that would give them both significant control of the cable market. Showtime Networks Inc. CEO Matt Blank, who joined them on the panel, joked, "It's great to be up here with the entire cable industry now." (See Comcast to Send Subs to Charter if TWC Deal Closes.)

— Mari Silbey, special to Light Reading

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