NCTA 2014: CEO Michael Powell Uses Keynote to Plead to Keep Cable, Internet Private

Courtesy of NCTA
Michael Powell

The former FCC head contrasts government-run programs like water and electricity with the consistent performance of cable TV and the Web.

National Cable and Telecommunications Association CEO Michael Powell used his keynote address at the opening session of the 2014 Cable Show in Los Angeles to warn against any government takeover or heavy-handed regulation of cable TV and the Internet.

"It is the Internet's essential nature that fuels a very heated policy debate that the network cannot be left in private hands and should instead be regulated as a public utility," said Powell, the former head of the FCC, "following the example of the interstate highway system, the electric grid and drinking water. The intuitive appeal of this argument is understandable, but the potholes visible through your windshield, the shiver you feel in a cold house after a snowstorm knocks out the power and the water-main breaks along your commute should restrain one from embracing the illusory virtues of public utility regulation."

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Powell listed various government-run services -- water, roads, utilities -- that suffer from underinvestment and neglect, and contrasted those with cable TV and the Internet as they currently exist. "Because the Internet is not regulated as a public utility, it grows and thrives, watered by private capital and a light regulatory touch," said Powell. "It does not depend on the political process for its growth or the extended droughts of public funding. This is why broadband is the fastest-deploying technology in world history, reaching nearly every citizen in our expansive country."

Powell ticked off the advantages of private ownership: Broadband speeds have increased 1,500 percent in the last decade; America's Internet providers have invested $1.3 trillion dollars since 1996 to make America's Internet world class; our country has 4 percent of the world's population, but attracts 25 percent of all global broadband investment.

"Regulators overseas envy this level of investment," added Powell. "Neelie Kroes, the EU Digital Agenda Commissioner has said, 'The writing is on the wall, and many EU leaders are abandoning their approach and looking to the American broadband model of infrastructure-based competition and private investment.'

"The contrast is striking when you compare the crisis in public utility infrastructure with the dynamism and stable investment in broadband Internet services," said Powell, adding a warning: "We should not be complacent, however. We must continually prove that the private sector can achieve public good."

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"We need to continue to build a faster and open Internet," said Powell. "We need to continue to produce content that entertains, informs and delights. We need to keep prices reasonable and the value of our services high. We need to deliver second-to-none customer service. And we need to be good corporate citizens."

Powell said that cable and Internet services have no value without the stories, networks and content that keep people informed and entertained.

"In our vocation, we knit together these two very powerful human forces: network and story," said Powell. "It's a spectacular combination that too many take for granted. We spend time talking and fighting about regulatory gains and losses. We spend so much energy debating how the spoils of profit are divided. All necessary of course, but there is a higher value in what we do."