FCC's Wheeler: Agency still has regulatory role

The agency will focus on telecom competition and on Internet access and interconnection, Wheeler says

The U.S. Federal Communications Commission still has a regulatory role to promote competition in telecommunications and broadband and to ensure Internet users can access the content of their choosing, the agency's new chairman said Monday.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler, in a speech at Ohio State University, rejected calls by some conservative groups and large carriers to let the free market dictate the direction of the telecom industry going forward. While the telecom industry and its networks have evolved away from a monopoly system in recent years, the FCC still has several functions, he said.

"As our networks evolve, so should government oversight," he said. "I am a rabid believer in the power of the marketplace. But I have seen enough about how markets operate to know that they don't always, by themselves, solve every problem."

Wheeler pointed to the FCC's decision in 2011 to oppose AT&T's takeover of rival T-Mobile USA as an example of good competition policy.

"In that particular case, the FCC refused to give the go-ahead to a deal that could have pushed us toward a duopoly," he said. "And look at what happened. Following the signal that the FCC is committed to a competitive mobile marketplace, both T-Mobile and Sprint have been able to attract significant investment capital to build out their networks and increase competition in the mobile industry."

However, the FCC won't look to regulate the Internet, Wheeler said "Regulating the Internet is a non-starter," he said. "What the Internet does is an activity in which policy makers should be extremely circumspect. Assuring that the Internet exists, however, as a collection of open, interconnected entities is an appropriate activity for the people's representatives."

The FCC going forward will focus on encouraging competitive markets in the telecom and broadband industries and on promoting what he called the "network compact." As part of the network compact, the FCC has a role in ensuring network accessibility, interconnection, public safety and security.

Net neutrality rules are part of accessibility, he said. Wheeler defended the FCC's net neutrality rules passed by former chairman Julius Genachowski. "We stand for an open Internet," he said. "You can't have access unless you can access any lawfully available content."

He also defended the FCC's recent move toward allowing airline passengers to use their mobile phones during flights. The decision to allow phone calls on flights should be the decision of the airlines, not based on "outdated technology" that suggests mobile phones interfere with airplane instruments, he said.

Wheeler released an e-book outlining his policy goals on Monday.

Grant Gross covers technology and telecom policy in the U.S. government for The IDG News Service. Follow Grant on Twitter at GrantGross. Grant's email address is grant_gross@idg.com.

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