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Wheeler's rules: open Internet, competition, and don’t test him

Wed, 04/30/2014 - 4:43pm
Brian Santo

Perhaps the “news” about the FCC blowing up the open Internet was just pre-emptive howling. FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler was emphatic that no decisions had yet been made, and that his commitment to an open Internet was unassailable.

And if anyone thought the former head of the NCTA was going to come to the Cable Show and act all cuddly, they were very, very wrong. Wheeler warned, slapped, threatened and cajoled, though even his targets might not have noticed at first, given his measured tone and erudite phraseology.

Wheeler asserted that the industry has responsibilities to the public, and said that while cable has frequently met those responsibilities, it is singular for operating in a regulatory environment that is “barely discernible.”

It was a not very oblique slap to the NCTA, whose current president, Michael Powell, has consistently used the Cable Show stage to link the virtues of America, the cable industry, and a light regulatory touch, usually with a drum & bugle corps providing a soundtrack.

Wheeler told the cable audience that if they want to keep the regulatory touch light, they need to continue to behave responsibly, competing fairly, and not interfering with innovation or others’ opportunities.

He did not accuse anyone of supporting the spread of state laws that ban municipalities from establishing their own broadband services, but he didn’t have to; some of the largest cable companies are known to be behind such measures. He said he has the authority as Chairman of the FCC to pre-empt all of those state laws, and he intends to.

Wheeler commended AT&T for its commitment to roll out 1 Gbps services, noted that Cox Communications CEO Pat Esser the day previous committed to start doing likewise, and observed that DOCSIS 3.1 – renamed GigaSphere – is available to all. And then he challenged the industry to start providing reasonably priced high-speed broadband to every school and library in America.

In his subsequent Q&A session with Powell, he said “if we stick to connecting our schools by 20th Century means, and don’t leapfrog to high speed access for every student, shame on us.”

As for network neutrality rules, he said “prioritizing some traffic by forcing the rest of the traffic onto a congested lane won’t be permitted under any proposed open Internet rule. We will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so that others with special privileges have superior service.”

Blocking access to anyone on the Internet will not be tolerated, he said.

The cable industry, he had previously noted, has been supportive of open Internet rules. But he made it clear that not even his old friends in the cable industry will be safe if they flout those rules, threatening what, for cable, is a metaphorical nuclear option – applying Title II, the provision in the 1934 Communications Act that enables regulation of communications services.

“If someone acts to divide the Internet between haves and have-nots, we will use every power at our disposal to stop it. And I consider that that includes Title II. Just because it’s my strong belief that following the courts roadmap will produce similar protections more quickly does not mean that I will hesitate to use Title II, if warranted. And in our Notice, we’re asking for input if this approach should be used.

“The Internet,” he said, hammering each of his next words word for effect, “will remain effectively open.”

 

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