NCTA 2014: FCC Chairman Tells Cable to Expand Broadband but Ensure Fair and Reasonable Access

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Tom Wheeler

Tom Wheeler told the cable crowd that the FCC will not tolerate companies' Internet "fast lanes," but will encourage cable to remain private and lightly regulated.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler insisted that, as new rules are developed and implemented for net neutrality, the value and accessibility of the Internet will remain a priority.

During a keynote address that opened the second day of the NCTA convention, he referred to the press' reaction to the FCC's proposals on net neutrality that began circulating last week. Wheeler refuted the idea that there will be fast lanes for the rich and powerful, at a cost to consumers. "Reports [that] we're gutting the open Internet are incorrect," declared Wheeler. "I’m here to say to you [who think otherwise] put away the party hats. The open Internet rules will be tough, enforceable and, with the cooperation of my colleagues, will be in effect dispatch."

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Wheeler said the court ruling that threw out the old net neutrality rules also provided a guide for what the FCC must do, and made clear the commission has all the authority it needs to do just that. "We are beyond the question of the scope of the FCC's authority," said Wheeler. "The court has decided that. Knowing that authority we must now move expeditiously to make it manifest.

"There’s been a great deal of talk about how our instructions to use a reasonable standard could result in so-called fast lanes of Internet have's and have not's," added Wheeler. "That misses the point that any new rule will ensure a pathway that is sufficiently robust for consumers to get what they demand."

He said the rule will still allow "edge providers" -- those like Netflix or Google who are willing to pay to ensure delivery of their content and the ability "to offer new products and services" -- but such is not the FCC's or the government’s priority, he made clear.

"The focus is on maintaining a broad availability of a fast and robust Internet as a platform for economic growth, innovations, competition, free expression and to encourage broadband investment and deployment," said Wheeler, adding, "We will follow the court’s blueprint for achieving this, and I must warn you that we will look skeptically upon special exceptions.... If someone acts to divide the Internet between have and have not's...we will use every power at our disposal to stop it."

Wheeler said that since he was in Los Angeles, he would use a traffic metaphor to make his point even more clear. "Prioritizing some traffic by forcing the rest of the traffic onto a crowded lane will not be permitted by any Internet rule," said Wheeler. "We will not allow some companies to force Internet users into a slow lane so others with special privileges will have superior service. Consumers have rightfully come to expect quality access on all points of the Internet."

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Wheeler recalled that the last time he was center stage at the NCTA was 30 years ago, when he headed the organization. He noted that, at the time, cable was a new player trying to find its way and it was heavily regulated, but cable is now the incumbent and the regulatory environment is significantly changed. "For all of its importance, cable today confronts relatively little regulation in its principal business which has become and will continue to be broadband, but as we’ve been discussing, with regard to the open Internet, that does not put the industry in a zone free of obligation and oversight." Noting it will take a massive amount of private investment to keep cable at the forefront of the current technological change that will accelerate in the future, the FCC will encourage cable to remain private and lightly regulated.

However, if the industry acts irresponsibly, or favors certain players over consumers or doesn’t keep up the pace of innovation, Wheeler said the FCC will act and will use every resource and law at its disposal to protect every American. That is not only because the Internet is important as a business tool, said Wheeler, but also because it is key to our national security and to the values of America. "Our values are implicated, among other things, by our ability to transmit and receive facts, ideas and opinions," said Wheeler, "and therefore the practices you adopt with respect to the openness of our broadband networks [are important]. As a result of the importance of our broadband networks…the FCC has the responsibility to oversee such performance and to intervene should it fall short. At the FCC our focus is the availability, security and openness of your broadband networks."

Wheeler said the FCC also recognizes that not all areas will attract investment, and that there are funds being used to make the latest technology available to all Americans, no matter where they live or how much they make. He also made a plea to the cable operators to ensure that schools, libraries and students have access to the Internet at a reasonable and fair rate.

"In every instance, I spoke not only of the FCC’s responsibility but also of your industry," concluded Wheeler. "When it comes to broadband, the cable industry has important technological advantages, a leading market position and very limited regulation. It is, to engage in understatement, an unusual situation. The only way to maintain this situation is to uphold your responsibility. If you do, you will benefit not only your industry but you also will contribute to the prosperity, security and values of our nation."