FORTUNE -- Now that he's in office, Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is only slightly less inscrutable than he had been in the months leading up to his nomination by President Obama and approval by the Senate. That's probably as it should be: It's unwise for a regulator to get too specific on particular issues before handing down actual rulings.
But we can draw some insights from his first big policy speech, given Monday at Ohio State University. In it, Wheeler lived up to the reputation he gained during the nomination process as a policy wonk and a tech nerd who is supremely careful about regulation. In a nutshell, he's not against imposing rules on the communications industry, but he seems hesitant to do so unless those rules are meant to foster more competition, and hence more choices and lower prices for consumers.
That might mean telecom giants AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) will have to give up some of their hegemony over wireless markets when the government auctions off spectrum next year. That's good news for the second-tier players, T-Mobile (TMUS) and Sprint (S). Wheeler referred approvingly to the Justice Department's April filing that urged the FCC to conduct the auction in such a way as to ensure that AT&T and Verizon Wireless would not be able to snap up too much low-band spectrum (below 1 gigahertz). "A key goal of our spectrum-allocation efforts is ensuring that multiple carriers have access to airwaves needed to operate their networks," Wheeler said.
He also noted that after the FCC and the Justice Department challenged AT&T's planned acquisition of T-Mobile in 2011, causing AT&T to back away from the deal, both T-Mobile and Sprint began to amass "significant investment capital to build out their networks and increase competition."
Those remarks seem to challenge the arguments made by some in Congress who oppose restricting the bigger carriers from using their existing market power to buy up spectrum, leaving smaller competitors out in the cold.
At the same time, Wheeler said, "I have zero interest in imposing new regulations on a competitive market just because we can." On that score, Wheeler said he's not necessarily opposed to Internet service providers charging higher prices for heavy usage by so-called "data hogs" such as online gamers. "We are seeing the market evolve in such a way that there will be variations in pricing [and] there will be variations in service," he said. Such an evolution is strongly opposed by consumer groups who believe that usage-based pricing puts too much power in the hands of ISPs over how much and what kinds of content people receive. The big ISPs, mainly cable companies, say it's only fair to charge more to users who take up more bandwidth.
While Wheeler said he will enforce his agency's Open Internet rules governing net neutrality, he also seemed to indicate that he has a liberal interpretation of that concept. "I am a firm believer in the market," he said. "I think we're also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say, 'Well, I'll pay to make sure that my subscriber receives the best possible transmission of this movie.' I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve, and we want to observe what happens from that and we want to make decisions accordingly. I go back to the fact that the marketplace is where these decisions ought to be made, and the functionality of a competitive marketplace dictates the degree of regulation."
There's that inscrutability again. If Netflix (NFLX) is paying more to, say, Comcast (CMCSA), for better service, the question becomes: More than whom? More than, say, NBCUniversal, which is owned by Comcast?
In other words, we still don't have a clear idea of what Wheeler might do.
Rather than improving its service or cutting prices, Comcast has spent big to unseat the mayor of Seattle, who is bringing a city-sponsored high-speed broadband network to his city.
FORTUNE -- When challenged, monopolists, particularly in the communications industry, often tend to work harder to protect their monopolies than they do to improve their services or cut prices (or simply limit price increases). An excellent example of this can be found MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Nov 1, 2013 4:18 PM ET
Even in the iPhone's slowest quarter, Apple grabbed 51% of Verizon's activations.
FORTUNE -- Apple (AAPL) got some good news Thursday from Verizon (VZ), the first of the big four U.S. carriers to report its Q3 2013 results.
Of the 7.6 million smartphones Verizon activated in the quarter, 3.9 million (51%) were iPhones. That's up from the same quarter last year, when the iPhone accounted for only 46% of 6.8 million.
Given that the third MOREPhilip Elmer-DeWitt - Oct 17, 2013 3:15 PM ET
Austin is getting gigabit Internet service. But it will be only for those families who can afford the high fees.
FORTUNE -- AT&T (T) has announced that it will soon offer ultra-high-speed Internet service in Austin, Texas, going head to head with Google (GOOG), which is doing the same. Finally, it seems the U.S., where the Internet was invented, might be on the way to getting Internet speeds more like those MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Oct 2, 2013 9:21 AM ET
A smartphone with physical keyboard? The Canadian company believes there's still a place for its new device in a market dominated by touch.
FORTUNE -- Confession: I use a BlackBerry.
Or well, I have a BlackBerry Bold 9930 for my work email (my choice) and an iPhone 5 for everything else. And you know what? It works. I've enjoyed my iPhone's many strengths over the years -- industrial design, app selection, MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Jun 23, 2013 10:24 PM ET
Facebook's CEO reportedly approached Samsung about making the social network's next phone. Smart move.
FORTUNE -- Remember the first Facebook phone, the HTC First? Not many do -- despite its recent April launch.
The First was Facebook's (FB) first phone with Facebook Home, customized software that modifies areas of Google's (GOOG) popular Android operating system so users can readily check status updates and text friends. The phone is also one of Facebook's biggest MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Jun 20, 2013 6:23 AM ET
Even if Dish can beat out Softbank to acquire Sprint, the satellite operator would still have lots of work to do to remake the TV-distribution business the way it did in the '80s.
FORTUNE -- Why would a satellite TV operator want to buy a wireless network? Mainly, because the satellite TV business is terrible.
And even in that business, Dish Network (DISH), which on Monday announced a $25.5 billion bid for MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Apr 16, 2013 11:10 AM ET
It's the biggest shift in technology since the advent of the Internet, and mobile is still only just beginning.
By Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE -- "I remember traffic lights before smartphones," sighed a friend as we sat in traffic behind a car that remained still after the light had turned green. Sure enough, the driver's head was tilted downward as if lost in solemn prayer -- or, more likely, a texting/map/music app MOREFeb 20, 2013 8:40 AM ET
Also: Priceline buying Kayak for $1.8 billion; how Gangham Style went viral.
Priceline to buy Kayak for $1.8 billion [SKIFT]
I think this a great deal, and Priceline is probably among the best acquirers in Internet history, I would even say as good as Cisco of yore. Booking.com turned out to be among the best acquisitions ever, so did its buyout of Agoda.com, and now Kayak, which they will keep separate, could MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Nov 9, 2012 5:30 AM ET
While Verizon and AT&T have gone with tiered data plans, T Mobile and Sprint are hanging tough with unlimited data for its users. Will the strategy pan out for the holdouts?
By Peter Suciu
FORTUNE -- While number one and two mobile carriers Verizon Wireless and AT&T have adopted tiered plans for wireless data, T-Mobile and Sprint have opted to stick with so-called "all-you-can-eat" options for customers. And unlike older so-called MORESep 13, 2012 11:19 AM ET
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