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.
It's not just a loyalty-shipping program.
FORTUNE -- Last Friday, Amazon (AMZN) announced customers can now officially give others a $79 Amazon Prime membership -- a move that came just before the official start of holiday season.
Users simply add an Amazon Prime membership to their online cart, enter the recipient's email address, then select a virtual delivery date.
When it debuted in 2005, Prime was notable for two-day shipping. But the loyalty MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Nov 26, 2013 5:00 AM ET
With a content strategy well underway, the media company takes a hard look at how its core product appears in the living room.
FORTUNE—America's obsession with Netflix goes well beyond recent hit shows like House of Cards and Orange is the New Black. It spans genres and generations, and accounts for 1 billion hours of viewing a month—nearly one third of all downstream Internet traffic.
Now Netflix (NFLX) wants to ensconce itself even further in MOREMiguel Helft, senior writer - Nov 13, 2013 12:01 AM ET
Here's what the company should do.
FORTUNE -- Netflix (NFLX) is on a roll.
Earlier this week, the video streaming service provider reported net income had more than quadrupled to $31.8 million last quarter. Membership climbed to 40 million worldwide, with strong growth overseas. And with three Emmy wins this September, it seems the company is stronger now more than ever -- impressive given the company's public struggles two years ago with MOREJP Mangalindan, Writer - Oct 24, 2013 2:24 PM ET
The Peter Thiel-backed startup, launching today, offers unlimited reads for $9.95 a month.
By Beth Kowitt, writer
FORTUNE -- Could Oyster be the Netflix for books? It's the question many industry-watchers have been asking since last October, when the New York City-based startup received $3 million in funding led by Founders Fund.
Today's launch of Oyster in Apple's (AAPL) App Store gets us closer to an answer. With Oyster, subscribers get unlimited digital MORESep 5, 2013 10:57 AM ET
Critics say data caps are aimed squarely at hindering competition from Internet video providers.
FORTUNE -- Cable companies continue to expand their imposition of data caps on Internet customers in some areas. Critics see it as an attempt to thwart competition from Internet video providers like Netflix (NFLX) that offer alternatives to cable TV.
DSLReports' Karl Bode reported this week that two companies, Comcast (CMSCA) and Mediacom, have both expanded caps or MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Aug 9, 2013 2:24 PM ET
Ever since Netflix's 2011 stumble, when it announced a price increase and a spinoff of its DVD business, the company has concentrated on pleasing customers. The latest: allowing customers to create their own user profiles.
FORTUNE -- As Apple (AAPL) continues to send out near-daily barrages of product updates for iTunes, Netflix continues to focus squarely on improving its customer experience.
The latest example of this is Netflix's (NFLX) new user profiles, MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Aug 2, 2013 12:56 PM ET
More than most tech stocks, Netflix is an investment in the future of TV.
By Kevin Kelleher, contributor
FORTUNE – Wrapping up a conference call with analysts and investors this week, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings shared his view that the company isn't so much in the TV business as it is in the "membership happiness business." Too bad for Wall Street that he didn't mention the business of pleasing investors every quarter.
Within MOREJul 24, 2013 7:20 AM ET
The media companies that are selling Hulu aren't bargaining over price so much as what kind of deals they can get from the new owners.
FORTUNE -- Now that all the bids are in for Hulu, the question is: What will become of the service? And the answer is: Nobody knows for sure, but it's possible that the Hulu as we know it will disappear, or at least be diminished from MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Jul 10, 2013 6:40 AM ET
Its latest deal means that Netflix now has the two biggest animation studios on board, strengthening its position in kids' programming.
FORTUNE -- Ask any parent who is a Netflix subscriber, and there's a good chance they'll tell you that the video-streamer is much stronger on kids' programming than on adult fare. The difference grows a bit starker with Netflix's new deal to run 300 hours of original animated programming from MOREDan Mitchell, contributor - Jun 17, 2013 1:28 PM ET
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