FCC chair talks broadband hardball but keeps tossing slowpitch

5 September 2014 by Steve Blum
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Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the FCC, gave a ringing speech yesterday at a Washington incubator, calling for more broadband competition, decrying the poor choice and service across huge swaths of the U.S., plugging municipal broadband and admitting that mobile service is no substitute for wireline networks, particularly fiber.

All good things. All wonderful words. The question, though, is whether he’ll follow through or if he’ll use pro-competition rhetoric to lay down a smoke screen for incumbent-friendly policies.

So far, it’s been the latter. The one major policy initiative that’s made it as far as draft form is Wheeler’s re-write of network neutrality rules. His vision seems to be of a Washington where telecoms regulation is a matter to be worked out behind closed doors with well-heeled lobbyists and lawyers. Yet he offered that initiative as a shining example of how he’ll fight for broadband competition…

Where greater competition can exist, we will encourage it…the entire Open Internet proceeding is about ensuring that the Internet remains free from barriers erected by last-mile providers.

If Wheeler is serious about promoting broadband competition, he would surely torpedo the proposed Comcast/Time-Warner/Charter mega merger and market swap. And in fact, some are saying yesterday’s speech means he intends to do just that. But a close and cynical reading of it shows how he could waltz the deal through by imposing tough sounding, but peripheral conditions…

There is no doubt that regulation, even when necessary, imposes costs. Especially in a fast- moving sector, it is important that companies be free to develop better networks and to attract the investment necessary to do so.

Yet, let’s remember that no company should be held immune from the competition that drives such investment. As the same time, no company should be protected from public interest obligations, especially where meaningful competition is not present.

Translation: competition is good, but imposing public interest obligations – of whatever sort – is good enough.

I’ve said it before: Wheeler acts like he’s the telecom industry’s lobbyist-in-chief, not the neutral chair of a federal regulator.