Tom Wheeler today presided over his final public meeting as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, a three-year stretch that he called the highlight of his career.
Wheeler was sworn in to the FCC in November 2013, and he knew the industry well because he was a former lobbyist. From 1979 to 1984, he led the cable industry’s top lobby group, and from 1992 to 2004 he was the chief lobbyist for the mobile phone industry.
Looking back, Wheeler says it was easier being a lobbyist.
“To make decisions that are in the common good is tough,” Wheeler said at a press conference today. “Remember: I have been on the other side. Making demands that benefit a specific constituency is easy, as is attacking the decision-makers when you don’t like that decision.”
Wheeler was no industry lap-dog
Some consumer advocates were skeptical of Wheeler when he was chosen by President Obama to regulate the industries he used to lobby for. But he pushed through consumer protection regulations and other decisions that were bitterly opposed by the industries he used to represent, such as imposing network neutrality rules on ISPs and refusing to approve a Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger.
Consumer advocacy groups praised Wheeler today. “Rather than be the lap-dog of industry some feared, or hoped for, Tom Wheeler proved himself to be the most ferocious watchdog for consumers and competition in nearly two decades,” Public Knowledge Senior VP Harold Feld said. “In the days ahead, the public must be prepared to fight vigorously to keep the consumer protections he created.”
Wheeler announced today that he will leave the commission on January 20; the next monthly meeting is scheduled for January 26. President-elect Donald Trump will have to appoint a new chairperson.
Wheeler said his greatest lesson from being chairman “is how malleable the definition of the public interest becomes when it comes to protecting self-interest. Good people would come into the office and explain that what benefited them was in the public interest, and those of an opposing view would argue that the public interest was only as they defined it.”
Wheeler said he concluded that “I needed to define the public interest as the common good. At a time when everyone is wrapping their self-interest in their definition of public interest, the question has to be what is the best way to serve the common interests of the most [people].”
Republican Ajit Pai, who could be chosen for the chairmanship on at least an interim basis, said at today’s meeting, “there’s no question that Chairman Wheeler made the most of his time here at the Federal Communications Commission.” Pai opposed many of Wheeler’s key initiatives, but today he called his colleague “a tenacious worker.”
“I salute him for his public service, his love for this agency, and the people who work here,” Pai said.
Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who is also on her way out after the Republican-controlled Senate refused to act on her re-confirmation, thanked Wheeler “for what has undeniably been an activist agenda.” Wheeler in turn praised Rosenworcel for being “an early champion” of reclassifying broadband as a common carrier service under Title II of the Communications Act, a move that helped the FCC defeat legal challenges to net neutrality rules.
Public Knowledge’s statement on Wheeler listed some of his biggest achievements. It wasn’t just the net neutrality regulations that everyone will remember, the group noted. Wheeler extended the Lifeline subsidy program to help poor people buy broadband, “created the strongest privacy rules ever” for customers of ISPs, lowered phone prices for inmates, and overhauled the FCC’s Enforcement Bureau to “protect… consumer privacy and curb… unfair practices such as Wi-Fi blocking by hotels and convention centers.”
In short, Wheeler “pushed to transform every aspect of the FCC’s jurisdiction to serve the public and the public interest,” Public Knowledge said. (The advocacy group was founded by Gigi Sohn, who was hired by Wheeler to serve as one of his top counselors.)
Praise for Wheeler also came from New America’s Open Technology Institute, another consumer advocacy group. Wheeler and fellow Democrats “enacted historic rules to preserve an open Internet and protect consumer privacy, thwarted the harmful Comcast merger with Time Warner Cable, and reformed the Commission’s important E-rate and Lifeline programs—all within a framework grounded in improving competition and innovation and promoting a vision of the Internet as an open platform for all voices,” said Sarah Morris, the group’s director of open Internet policy.
NCTA, the cable lobby group that Wheeler used to represent, frequently opposed Wheeler over the past three years but today released a statement thanking him for his service.
“Chairman Wheeler’s mantra from the beginning of his tenure has been ‘competition, competition, competition’ and he should be proud that American consumers are enjoying the benefits of today’s vibrant and highly competitive video and broadband sectors,” NCTA CEO Michael Powell (a former FCC chairman himself under President George W. Bush) said in the group’s statement.
Wheeler, however, does not agree with NCTA’s claim that the market is “highly competitive,” a view that influenced numerous FCC policies.
The FCC’s Republican future
Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will be the sole remaining Democrat in the FCC after the departure of Wheeler and Rosenworcel. Wheeler today called Clyburn “the conscience of the commission.”
The FCC will have a 2-1 Republican majority in Trump’s first days, though another Republican and Democrat will likely be added to restore the FCC’s traditional 3-2 split. All members of the commission are nominated by the president and confirmed by the Senate, with minority party commissioners usually being selected based on suggestions from the minority party leadership.
Wheeler said he met with Trump advisors to help facilitate the transition. He said that they had “good meetings” but declined to say what was discussed. Trump appointed three advisors who are outspoken opponents of the FCC’s net neutrality rules and are affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute (AEI).
Wheeler mostly declined to speak about the Trump administration’s potential policies but said he hopes that net neutrality rules that forbid blocking, throttling, and paid prioritization will survive. One possibility is for Congress to eliminate Wheeler’s net neutrality rules and impose a new, weaker version.
“I hope that if there is legislation, that it is net neutrality in more than name,” and “not some kind of false labeling where net neutrality rules are actually gutted under the name of being net neutrality,” Wheeler said.
The Title II reclassification was criticized by ISPs who claimed it would hinder investment, although a Comcast executive recently admitted things haven’t turned out so bad.
“There is no dearth in the number of folks who are willing to manipulate [network investment] numbers,” Wheeler said today. “I think the key is we should be looking at investment decision numbers as they are reported to the FCC and shareholders, in which all of the major ISPs are talking about increasing investment.” Wheeler pointed to ISPs building gigabit networks, saying, “the margin in high-speed broadband is very good.”