Wireless industry groups critical of Biden’s executive order on competition

Wireless industry advocates CTIA and WISPA have voiced concern over an executive order released Friday by President Joe Biden that in part targets broadband competition and encourages more regulation.

CTIA, which represents major U.S. carriers, device makers and other wireless ecosystem players, called out “the billions” invested by industry as driving a competitive and pro-consumer market.

“The White House missed a clear opportunity today to hold out the wireless industry as a competitive success story to be replicated in other industries. Today’s action regrettably appears more focused on expanding government’s role than promoting new competition,” CTIA stated, adding that the White House action lacks good data about the wireless consumer experience, stating more than 99% of Americans can choose between three or more wireless providers.  

The executive order is focused on competition and covers 72 issues across a range of sectors. Wireless industry analyst Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics, said he’s waiting for publication in the Federal Register as a fact sheet released by the White House doesn’t provide all of the specifics, including whether provisions like a “broadband nutrition label” apply to both mobile and fixed service providers.

“The devil is in the details,” Entner told Fierce.

In sections outlining broadband competition, Biden encouraged the FCC to: prevent ISPs from making deals with landlords that limit tenants choices; provide a simple label with basic information about internet service so consumers can compare prices; limit excessive early termination fees; and (possibly the most hot-button issue) restore net neutrality rules that were revived during the Obama administration and subsequently overturned during the Trump administration when the FCC did away with the Title II classification of internet service providers as “common carriers” subject to regulations.

Net neutrality top of mind for wireless

The net neutrality (or Title II) debate is likely to strike the strongest concern within the wireless industry, along with potential rate control, according to Entner.

However, he stressed that the president can only encourage, rather than order, the FCC – and the commission is still split with two Democrats and two Republicans until a fifth commissioner and permanent FCC Chairperson is appointed. The current FCC stands at 2-2, with Acting Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel as the interim head.

RELATED: Biden order on broadband competition could hit wall at FCC

CTIA’s statement said it was time to move beyond “the outdated and divisive rhetoric of net neutrality and focus on the consumer and competitive issues that will actually drive our future global competitiveness,” adding a push for focus on spectrum policy.

"The highly regulatory approach outlined in today’s order unfortunately risks harming consumers by distracting from bipartisan efforts to close the digital divide, inhibiting new competitive choices and innovation, jeopardizing new job creation, and needlessly risking our nation’s future technological leadership," CTIA continued. 

WISPA, which represents fixed wireless service providers, also cited concerns over net neutrality although said the group was generally encouraged by the executive order.

“Local innovator ISPs have no reason to violate net neutrality principles, nor do they. But heavy-handed utility regulation would undermine the ability of these small innovators to compete in the marketplace, encouraging consolidation to more easily meet compliance obligations,” stated WISPA President and CEO Claude Aiken.

“WISPs offer competitive hybrid fiber and fixed wireless connectivity so that those who have been left behind by legacy incumbents live better lives,” Aiken continued. “WISPs are there precisely due to the absence of utility regulation, not because of it.” 

One of the concerns net neutrality rules have previously looked to address is broadband providers blocking or slowing traffic from other parties or internet services, say Netflix or Facebook for example, for their own gain. Entner suggested this hasn’t come to pass and that Title II significantly favors edge providers.

Tech giants like Amazon, Facebook and Google were among those, as well as consumer advocacy groups and many states, that had supported a federal lawsuit filed by Mozilla against the FCC to reinstate net neutrality.

“On the one hand the concern is the administration talks big about reeling in Silicon Valley and then they’re giving them the huge gift of Title II,” Entner said regarding the new executive order. “Which is on the top of Silicon Valley’s wish list. [And] right at the time when wireless networks become truly intelligent with 5G.”

RELATED: NY AG accuses broadband companies of fueling fake net neutrality comments

Tech giants, he said, would love to see Title II implemented in a way that prevents wireless companies from providing differentiated services, such as highly latency sensitive.

Biden’s executive order does target the tech industry, particularly enforcement of antitrust laws, competition on internet marketplaces and data accumulation.

Public Knowledge CEO and President Chris Lewis in a statement said that a direct result of competition is lower prices, more choices and higher quality products and services.

“We can’t expect large corporations like broadband providers and dominant digital platforms to meet public interest needs because they are driven by profits and control many markets as monopolies or duopolies. We must require them to reflect our societal interests — by insisting that they meet public interest obligations and compete for us,” Lewis stated.

Lewis also urged the president to nominate a full five-member FCC, saying that without it most of the directives like classification of broadband as a Title II service “are unlikely to occur.”

RELATED: More than 50 groups press Biden to fill open FCC seat

According to Entner, the wireless industry is happy to do net neutrality (that is prohibit activities like blocking) and is. The hang up is on Title II, he said, because it favors edge providers which don’t have that classification.  

However, if or when regulations ultimately are put back in place, he expects it to immediately go to court. The net neutrality debate has been somewhat of a ping-pong issue at the FCC. In October 2019 the U.S. Court of Appeals for the DC Circuit upheld part of the FCC order that reclassified broadband under information services and overturned net neutrality.

RELATED: Federal appeals court upholds overturn of net neutrality, but allows states to set own rules

Another tech aspect of the executive order encouraged the FTC to create rules that would prohibit anticompetitive restrictions on independent or third-party device repair shops, something targeted at handset manufactures.

Smartphone makers like Apple and Samsung are also members of CTIA, which said Friday’s action calls into question industry practices the group says are “already helping low-income consumers access advanced smartphones and safeguarding device repair procedures and parts.”