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FCC’s Wheeler vows he won’t let up on broadband policies

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s message on Friday was simple. When it comes to broadband policy, he’s right and his opponents – primarily the “big dog” Internet service providers – are wrong.

Wheeler’s speech at the Brookings Institution was his first major address since the D.C. Circuit court declined to stay the FCC’s open Internet order, paving the way for the FCC to enforce the rules beginning June 12.

So Friday’s speech was part victory lap and part manifesto for Wheeler, who sees himself at the helm of a historic transformation of spectrum and broadband policy.

“Continuing to protect and encourage a competitive marketplace is the foundational requirement of the modern FCC….But protection competition is only half the equation. Our job is to promote competition as well,” Wheeler said.

To do that, Wheeler said the FCC’s most tangible role is in evolving spectrum policy. There’s no more critical item on the FCC’s upcoming agenda than the broadcast incentive auction planned for early 2016, a date Wheeler plans to do everything if he can to meet it. If the auction is a success, Wheeler will be a hero, solidifying his legacy as the FCC chairman who forever changed spectrum policy.

“Our use of auctions – a competitive device in its own right – for assigning licensed spectrum is well known and, in most quarters, well celebrated. Making available spectrum for unlicensed use draws less public attention, but as the remarkable success of WiFi demonstrates, it literally is an indispensable element in the provision of broadband today. And if “more indispensable” is a permissible concept, it will be more indispensable to the broadband of tomorrow.

Wheeler demonized critics who see the open internet order as a drag on innovation and expansion.

“We’re not going to let imaginary concerns about investment incentives and utility regulation cause us to let up on policies to encourage fast, fair, and open broadband,” Wheeler said.

“The CEOs of Sprint, T-Mobile, Cablevision, Charter, and Frontier have all publicly said Title II regulation does not discourage their investment. Recent transactions, both announced and rumored, point to the same conclusion,” Wheeler said. “The post-open Internet announcements by AT&T, Bright House, CenturyLink, Cincinnati Bell, Comcast, Cox Cable, TDS Telecom, and Time Warner Cable about their plans to expand their broadband service certainly speak for themselves,” he added.

Wheeler again defined the role of the agency as “referee” when it comes to resolving Internet connection problems, addressing critics’ that the open Internet order gives the FCC’s broad authority to manage every sector of the Internet.

“We are the arbiters of last resort, not first resort. We will not micromanage networks as was done in the pre-broadband days. This means no retail rate regulation, no network unbundling, and no tariffs. In short, no ‘utility style regulation.’” Wheeler said.

But, if ISPs violate the rules “we’ll blow the whistle,” Wheeler vowed.

Wheeler also said he plans for the FCC to vote this fall on a pending rule making to redefine certain over-the-top video service as multi video program distributors to give them “the ability to choose the same business model as cable and satellite providers, with the same program access rights.”

If there is any take-away from Wheeler’s speech, it’s that this FCC chairman is on a roll and shows no signs of compromising. “Finally, let’s be clear. We should not and will not let up on our policies that make broadband more available,” he vowed.