Top cable industry lobbyist to FCC: Don't regulate the Net

NCTA head and former FCC Chairman Michael Powell says regulating the Internet like a public utility, as Net neutrality supporters wish, would be a disaster.

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Michael Powell, head of the NCTA, addresses the 2014 Cable Show in Los Angeles. CNET/Marguerite Reardon

LOS ANGELES -- Michael Powell, former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and now the cable industry's biggest lobbyist, urged the government to keep the Internet regulation-free, in spite of calls by Net neutrality supporters for the FCC to reclassify broadband traffic as a public utility.

Powell's comments, during his opening speech at the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's annual gathering here Tuesday, come days after FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler circulated his new proposal to reinstate Net neutrality regulation. Wheeler's proposal was met with a public backlash as supporters of an open Internet criticized the agency for not reclassifying broadband traffic so that it would be regulated like a public utility.

Since the original 2010 Open Internet rules were struck down by a federal appeals court in January, supporters of Net neutrality have been calling on the FCC to reclassify broadband as a common carrier so that it can be regulated like the highway system or electrical grid. These supporters say the measures outlined by Wheeler last week do not go far enough in protecting consumers and that the agency has gotten too cozy with the broadband industry.

Powell said during his speech that even though the argument for reclassifying broadband services may be tempting, because it provides an easier legal path for regulating Net neutrality, it could prove disastrous for the future of the Internet. He said that true public utilities like the highway system, the electric grid, and our nation's drinking water have all suffered from chronic under investment.

He listed a litany of woes affecting these utilities. One in four bridges are either functionally obsolete or structurally deficient, he said. He said the number of blackouts have increased from 76 in 2007 to 307 in 2011.

"Can you imagine if the Internet blacked-out 300 times a year?" he said. "No, because it doesn't. Because the Internet is not regulated as a public utility it grows and thrives, watered by private capital and a light regulatory touch."

Meanwhile, he said that the broadband network has seen tremendous investment since 1996, $1.3 trillion dollars to be exact.

"Our country has 4 percent of the world's population, but attracts 25 percent of all global broadband investment," he said.

He claimed that the level of investment from the private sector that the US gets for its broadband infrastructure is the envy of other countries. He quoted a European Union regulator who said that EU leaders are abandoning their government funded approach to broadband for one that looks more like the model in the US, which is based on 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," he said.

Still, he warned the industry must continue to prove that the private sector can achieve public good and not just make money.

"We need to continue to continue to build a faster and open Internet," he said. "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."

 

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