Most FCC bosses (from both parties) have paid a lot
of lip service to broadband competition over the years, but usually lack the conviction to upset major campaign donors and embrace the kind of policies that could really fix things. Our national broadband plan, for example
, is criticized as being a convoluted pile of politically-safe half-measures, failing to address duopoly issues. The FCC's coverage map, for another example, is often lamented as a $300 million inaccurate pipe dream
that aids incumbent carriers in obscuring all pricing data.
Time and time again, whether it's ignoring the agency's own data on the benefits of open access models
or protecting users from predatory pricing, sleazy fees
and usage caps
, the FCC falls short because, quite simply, they're afraid of the political repercussions of upsetting Comcast, AT&T and Verizon.
Tom Wheeler appears to be carrying on this proud FCC tradition. In a speech
(pdf) at the 1776 tech startup incubator today, Wheeler argued that while he's impressed with the progress being made in the race toward 1 Gbps
, the country still suffers from serious competitive issues that will need fixing. Wheeler applauded progress being made via the likes of Google Fiber, AT&T GigaPower, Cox, CenturyLink and others, but highlighted how while more than 50% of consumers have access to speeds of 100 Mbps, most remain stuck in a duopoly market.
"These gigabit developments are positive, but they are not yet pervasive," stated Wheeler. "Looking across the broadband landscape, we can only conclude that, while competition has driven broadband deployment, it has not yet done so a way that necessarily provides competitive choices for most Americans."
The FCC boss offered up a chart (left) showing that while speeds are improving, competition may actually be getting worse for some areas even if higher speeds are available. "Unfortunately, the reality we face today is that as bandwidth increases, competitive choice decreases," noted Wheeler.
So what is Wheeler going to do about it? You'll note a conspicuous absence of any mention of reclassifying ISPs as utilities, something most consumer advocates believe is the only real path forward if the FCC is to properly function as a protector of the telecom hen house. You'll also notice a lack of any solid position on Comcast's acquisition of Time Warner Cable, or AT&T's acquisition of DirecTV.
Instead, Wheeler seems to target a safer, traditional FCC itinerary that involves working harder to embrace unlicensed spectrum, ambiguously focusing on conquering the digital divide, and possibly bumping the FCC's 4 Mbps down, 1 Mbps up definition of broadband (which he called "yesterday's broadband").
When it comes to the truly important issues, the FCC boss was ambiguous at best. Wheeler again promised to listen closely to city requests to purge protectionist state broadband laws
, though it remains unclear if the agency will have the political support for what promises (like Title II) to be a very ugly fight against incumbent lobbyist lawyers, lobbyists and friends.
It's clear that Wheeler and company hope that wireless will someday potentially be a real fixed-line competitor, though he acknowledged that usage caps and high prices currently make that a difficult proposition. More than a few FCC bosses have wished that technological advancements would come along to magically create more competition (remember former FCC Boss Michael Powell's love of broadband over powerline
?), saving them from having to make unpopular decisions among incumbent ISPs.
While many of these issues are
important, Wheeler is going to be judged on two things: his willingness to pull the trigger on Title II reclassification, and his willingness to fight to kill off protectionist state broadband bans. Those really are the two key areas where Wheeler could seriously improve stagnant markets and help foster competitive pressure, but they also actually require standing up to incumbent providers -- something no FCC boss in recent memory has had the courage to do (beyond a few wrist slap fines or tersely-worded letters
While Wheeler did pull more than a few punches to avoid ruffling any feathers and to obviously avoid showing his legal hand, it's worth remembering that actually declaring the broadband industry uncompetitive is more than the agency has had the stomach for historically
. Whether Wheeler follows through on these promises -- or becomes yet another in a long line of FCC chiefs with a deep, restless love for hollow rhetoric -- remains up in the air.