Cable lobby defends FCC chief on 'fast lanes'


The head of the country’s top cable trade group is backing the Federal Communications Commission’s proposal for regulating Internet traffic.

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler is getting a bad rap for his plan, which would allow companies to make deals to speed up users’ Internet speeds, National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) President Michael Powell said on C-SPAN’s “The Communicators” this weekend.

“Chairman Wheeler is dealing with the boundaries of the law as interpreted by the court and I think he is personally trying to create the strongest net neutrality rule he can within the parameter of what the law provides,” said Powell, who himself was chairman of the FCC from 2001 to 2005.

The FCC is working on new rules for equal treatment of Web traffic, known as net neutrality, after a top appeals court threw out the existing regulations earlier this year.

Unlike the earlier rules, the new regulations would allow Internet providers to reach business deals with websites for better service, so long as the deals are deemed "commercially reasonable" by the FCC.

Many liberal and consumer interest groups have been outraged at the proposal, which they warn would allow companies to create “fast lanes” for users of some major websites and relegate everyone else to slower service.

Powell said that those fears were unfounded.

“Fast lanes perplex me to a great degree because I’ll be perfectly honest with you... I don’t think we even know what a fast lane is and I don’t think anybody is contemplating doing one,” he said.

Giving different speeds to different customers would not make “economic sense or logical sense,” he added, since the vast majority of Web users’ online activities don’t require faster service. 

Some critics of the proposal, which is still in the early stages, have urged the FCC to declare that the Internet is a public utility like traditional phone service, which would allow for stronger rules. 

But that move, Powell said, would lead to more fees for users and fewer consumer protections, since the Federal Trade Commission would no longer have any jurisdiction. 

That step would be “like reaching for a sledge hammer and a bulldozer and a chainsaw to tackle one rule — not even one rule; one piece of one rule,” he said.

“The putative benefits of doing that are almost zero and the risks of doing that are monumental.”

From 1976 to 1984, Wheeler served in top roles at the NCTA, including a five-year stint as president. 


-- Updated on June 17 to correct Wheeler's history with NCTA.