The U.S. Federal Communications Commission needs to be a "cop on the beat" to ensure mobile and broadband competition across the country, the agency's chairman said Tuesday.
The FCC must resist calls for the agency to phase out nearly all regulation of broadband and mobile carriers, Chairman Julius Genachowski said in a speech at Vox Media, a digital publisher. "Competition is the lifeblood of our free-market economy, driving private investment, innovation and consumer value," he said. "The more competition, the less need for regulation."
The FCC needs to continue to "fairly and rigorously" review all mergers and acquisitions in the telecom industry and consider all options, including divestitures, conditions and outright blocking deals, Genachowski said.
Genachowski noted that some groups say the FCC should have little authority in the broadband and mobile industries. He didn't name names, but AT&T, Comcast and Verizon Communications, along with some conservative lawmakers, have questioned the FCC's authority in recent years. On the other side, some consumer and digital rights groups have criticized the FCC for not taking a more active role in blocking mergers and other deals, particularly Verizon's recent purchase of wireless spectrum from four cable providers.
"Some say government has no role to play here," Genachowski said. "Some say government should just eliminate existing rules and policies on its way out the door. As someone who's spent more than a decade in the private sector and believes fundamentally in the power of the free market, I disagree with that view."
Pro-broadband government policies can help drive U.S. broadband service forward, he said. "Government has a role to play -- limited but vital," he said. "Light touch, not no touch."
Vox Media CEO Jim Bankoff billed Genachowski's speech as a major policy address, but the chairman spent much of his time talking about what he sees as past broadband successes and outlining general challenges moving forward. Several people watching the speech on Livestream questioned whether he offered any new proposals.
"To sum up, Internet and bandwidth are important," one Livestream user said.
Genachowski pointed to these successes in his four years as chairman: The U.S. has gone from lagging in 3G mobile rollout in 2008 to leading the world in 4G deployment in 2012. The U.S. has 69 percent of the world's LTE subscribers, and more than 80 percent of the world's smartphones sold today run on operating systems developed in the U.S., he said
"The United States has become the global test bed for LTE apps and services," he said.
In addition, wired broadband networks have made large increases in capacity, he said. In 2009, networks capable of delivering 100 Mbps service passed 20 percent of U.S. households, but today, they pass 80 percent, he said.
Genachowski also talked about broadband and mobile challenges, including a predicted upcoming spectrum crunch because of huge growth in data use by U.S. mobile customers. The U.S. needs to bring more wireless spectrum to auction and look for new ways to use spectrum more efficiently, including ways to share spectrum among licensees, he said.
Genachowski praised private efforts to bring ultrafast broadband to some areas, including Google's 1Gbps service in Kansas City, launched in July, and the Gig.U effort to bring higher speed broadband to university communities.
"We need more innovation hubs than we can count on one hand," Genachowski said. "We need a critical mass of communities that have the most robust bandwidth in the world, where broadband abundance is a fact of life."
U.S. tech companies and app makers have driven huge increases in demand for broadband, he said. "This rush of demand is creating real challenges to broadband infrastructure and other broadband policies," he said. "Bring it on. These are the kinds of challenges America wants to have. Too much demand is better than too little."
Genachowski also called on broadband and mobile carriers to build out service to all U.S. residents. There are still pockets of the country that have service, he said.
During audience questions, Genachowski was asked whether he thought that AT&T's decision to block Apple's FaceTime app on the iPhone, unless customers sign up for unlimited data, was a violation of the FCC's net neutrality rules. Genachowski declined to comment, saying the FCC may soon have to decide on the case, but he promised the agency would act if it found a violation.
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 e-mail address is [email protected]