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Cable titans criticize new FCC rules

Comcast chief executive Brian Roberts says the newly aggressive FCC is needlessly interfering in a cable TV market that’s already highly competitive.Susan Walsh/Associated Press/File 2013

A former chairman of the Federal Communications Commission and the chief executive of cable giant Comcast Corp. opened a cable industry trade show in Boston on Monday by opening fire on the FCC.

Michael Powell, who served as FCC chairman during the George W. Bush administration, is now president of the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the industry’s top trade association.

Powell told a gathering at the Internet & Television Expo that the cable industry had become “the target of a relentless regulatory assault.” He cited an FCC plan that would allow any electronics company to sell compatible cable set-top boxes, and a proposal to regulate the rates that cable companies can charge businesses for certain Internet services.

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Later on Monday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts said the newly aggressive FCC is needlessly interfering in a cable TV market that’s already highly competitive.

“This would be the worst time to start regulating,” Roberts said. “It’s an exciting space and there’s certainly not a lack of change happening, so why you’d want to regulate befuddles me.”

The current FCC chairman, Tom Wheeler, followed Powell’s career path in reverse. He’s a former NCTA president who was appointed to the FCC by President Obama in 2013. Wheeler surprised many in the industry by launching a regulatory crackdown on his former colleagues.

Comcast and other cable companies, as well as many TV and movie producers, have denounced the proposed set-top box reforms. They say the new policy would enable set-top box makers to transmit programs without paying licensing fees.

They also argue that the FCC plan would eliminate antipiracy protections, making it easy to illegally copy movies and TV shows.

Cable companies have also attacked last month’s FCC proposal to regulate the cost of business data services.

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Data prices charged by traditional phone companies are already regulated. But many companies now get their Internet service from cable companies like Comcast, which have not been subject to data price regulations.

The FCC wants to apply the same rate rules to both kinds of carriers; cable companies call this an unreasonable extension of government power.

Perhaps the most controversial are rules adopted in February 2015 that would regulate broadband Internet providers using the same federal ”common carrier” law that applies to telephone companies.

The goal of the regulation was “Net neutrality,” the idea that all data on the Internet should be treated exactly alike, just as phone calls are.

Net neutrality is strongly favored by many companies that do business on the Internet, like Google Inc. and Facebook Inc. But it’s been denounced by Internet service providers like Comcast, which say that the new rules give the FCC the power to micromanage their Internet business as the agency once did with the phone companies.

The new rules have been challenged in federal court and are currently on hold. But Roberts said they’ve already had a chilling effect on cable companies, by making it harder to arrange financing for multibillion-dollar network upgrades.

“If you have $50 billion of debt, regulations affect your ability to invest,” Roberts said. “Uncertainty doesn’t equal investment.”

The debate over FCC policy will continue Tuesday, at a panel discussion with four of the agency’s five commissioners. Then on Wednesday, Wheeler himself will take the stage.

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Hiawatha Bray can be reached at hiawatha.bray@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeTechLab.