This article was published 9 years ago

We owe Tom Wheeler an apology

Tom Wheeler FCC Chairman Oakland meeting
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler at an Oakland, Calif. town hall meeting – Image credit: Brooke Anderson / Free Press|Free Press Action Fund via Flickr

It turns out we didn’t know Tom Wheeler. We thought he was going to be the regulator that helped his former allies when he was a lobbyist for the telecommunications industry, instead he was the opposite. We owe Tom Wheeler an apology.

When President Obama unveiled Tom Wheeler as the new FCC commissioner, his background was immediately met with worried eyes: comments about how he approved AT&T/T-Mobile, how much was donated to the presidents’ campaign fund and the most trouble asset: a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry.

The worried eyes turned to fear and anger when Wheeler gave a speech at the Ohio State University in 2013 when he both praised and denounced “net neutrality” rules:

First the denouncement:

As our networks evolve, so should government oversight. There are some who suggest that new technology should essentially free the new networks from regulation; that market forces are enough to ensure that the public interest will be served. I am a rabid believer in the power of the marketplace. But I have seen enough about how markets operate to know that they don’t always, by themselves, solve every problem. The right of access also means the ability of users to access all lawful content on a network. That’s why the FCC adopted enforceable rules to preserve the Open Internet.

Then the suggestion of paid traffic during a Q&A session (video at 34:00 mark):

“I think that we’re seeing the market evolve in such a way that there will be variations in pricing, there will be variations in service and, as I said, I’m a firm believer in the market.” “I think we’re also going to see a two-sided market where Netflix might say ‘well, I’ll pay in order to make sure that you might receive, my subscriber might receive, the best possible transmission of this movie.’  I think we want to let those kinds of things evolve …”

When the first draft of the FCC’s Open Internet rules emerged that allowed ISPs use of paid prioritization of traffic, Wheeler immediately became the most hated person on the Internet. Non-communication interest groups hated him, Tech writers hated him and Silicon Valley hated him.

Wheeler eventually wrote a blog post on the FCC’s website to correct many of misinformation being reported but mainly to remind people that the actual rules have yet to be released.

Three months later, The FCC finally released their new rules for the Open Internet and allowed both paid priority of traffic and non-paid priority. The FCC also opened request for comments on the new rules.

Then came John Oliver:

This video cannot be played because embeds from third parties are not allowed to be shown.

And a tidal-wave of comments slammed the FCC, so much that the FCC established an e-mail address for people to email their comments and extend the comment period.

When the dust settled, the Sunlife foundation analyzed the comments and found out that 2/3 of 800,000 comments supported classifying the Internet under Title II, which would prohibit traffic discrimination of any type.

The results was clear: reclassify the Internet. And the FCC voted 3-2 to reclassify the Internet as a utility. The Internet won; even though the Open Internet rules can be changed with a new commissioner. Or if a court rules against the FCC.

Even with a victory, there was still a smell of skepticism on Wheeler. This was just one instance, thought everyone on the Internet. He will still help his former friends in the communication industry. Watch as he approves the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger.

Turns out it was the FCC that killed the merger and not the Department of Justice. Per the FCC’s statement:

Comcast and Time Warner Cable’s decision to end Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable is in the best interests of consumers. The proposed transaction would have created a company with the most broadband and video subscribers in the nation alongside the ownership of significant programming interests.

Today, an online video market is emerging that offers new business models and greater consumer choice. The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation especially given the growing importance of high-speed broadband to online video and innovative new services.

I am proud of our close working relationship throughout the review process with the Antitrust Division of the Department of Justice. Our collaboration provided both agencies with a deeper understanding of the important issues of innovation and competition that the proposed transaction raised.

Commissioner Wheeler already has passed two important issues during his tenure: Net Neutrality and defeating the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger. What looked like someone helping his former work interests turned out to be false pretenses.

We owe Tom Wheeler an apology.