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How FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Became a Net Neutrality Champion

The former telecom lobbyist became a public interest hero. His legacy is threatened by Trump.
Wheeler speaking in May 2015. Image: TechCrunch/Flickr

Tom Wheeler, the former telecom industry lobbyist who became an unlikely internet hero by spearheading the Federal Communications Commission's landmark net neutrality policy, announced plans on Thursday to step down from the agency in January.

During the FCC's monthly meeting, the 70-year-old Wheeler said that serving at the agency has been "the greatest honor of my professional life." Wheeler said he plans to step down on Jan. 20, the day that President-elect Donald Trump is set to be inaugurated.


"It has been a privilege to work with my fellow Commissioners to help protect consumers, strengthen public safety and cybersecurity, and ensure fast, fair and open networks for all Americans," Wheeler said. He thanked his staff, his wife, Carol, and President Obama, who appointed him to become the nation's top telecommunications regulator in 2013.

By stepping down, Wheeler is likely to leave the FCC with a 2-1 Republican majority, following the GOP-controlled Senate's refusal to reconfirm his Democratic colleague, Jessica Rosenworcel. That sets the stage for a rollback of many of Wheeler's pro-consumer reforms under the Trump administration, including the FCC's policy safeguarding net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible.

Trump's FCC transition team has already signaled its intention to take a much more industry-friendly stance toward telecom regulation. One of Trump's FCC advisors has even suggested dismantling most of the agency's pro-competition and consumer-protection functions, leaving the agency to act merely as an overseer of the nation's radio spectrum licenses.

From Telecom Lobbyist to Internet Hero

When Wheeler was tapped by President Obama to lead the FCC in 2013, many public interest advocates were skeptical, if not downright hostile, toward his appointment, because of his lengthy background as a top lobbyist for the cable industry, from 1979 to 1984, and the wireless industry, from 1992 to 2004.


More than two dozen public interest groups wrote a letter to Obama expressing alarm about a candidate "who was the head of not one but two major industry lobbying groups." The fact that Wheeler had raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for Obama's two presidential campaigns also raised the hackles of many public interest advocates.

But over the next three years, Wheeler won over the public interest community, and infuriated his former clients in the cable and wireless industries, by successfully spearheading the most pro-consumer telecom policy reforms in a generation, including the agency's landmark policy protecting net neutrality, and agency rules protecting consumers from broadband industry privacy abuses.

"Tom Wheeler has been—by far—the best FCC Chairman in the 45 years I have practiced communications law," said Andrew Schwartzman, Benton Senior Counselor at the Public Interest Communications Law Project at Georgetown University Law Center's Institute for Public Representation.

"He has been willing to take risks and expend political capital to advance his agenda," Schwartzman added. "And, unlike some predecessors, he hasn't been afraid to confront Congress and powerful business interests when they stood in the way."

Indeed, Wheeler became a bête noire for industry-friendly Republican members of Congress, who repeatedly branded him as an "unelected bureaucrat" who overstepped his regulatory authority. At one point during a heated 2015 Capitol Hill hearing, Louie Gohmert, the outspoken Texas Republican, accused Wheeler of "playing God with the internet."


"Competition, Competition, Competition"

During his three years as FCC Chairman, Wheeler made promoting competition in the cable and wireless industries his top priority, as he frequently reminded audiences around the with country with his signature mantra: "Competition, competition, competition."

The centerpiece of Wheeler's agenda was his successful push to protect net neutrality by reclassifying internet service providers as "common carriers" under Title II of the Communications Act, requiring them to treat all internet content equally, and barring them from favoring certain internet services over others or discriminating against rivals.

For more than a decade, open internet advocates had fought for such a policy shift, which they argued was necessary to ensure that the internet remains an open and level playing field for innovation, economic growth, and free speech. After more than a year of vigorous debate, including some 4 million public comments, the agency successfully passed its net neutrality policy in February 2015, despite ferocious opposition from the telecom industry, which argued that the rules amounted to an egregious regulatory overreach.

"Wheeler didn't come into this job as a net neutrality champion, but he will be remembered first and foremost for his leadership on that crucial issue and for the standing ovations he earned on the day of the FCC's historic vote," Craig Aaron, president and CEO of DC-based public interest group Free Press, said in a statement.


Wheeler's commitment to industry competition was also evident in the FCC's April 2015 decision to block Comcast's proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable, a tie-up that was fiercely opposed by public interest advocates. In a statement at the time, Wheeler said the deal would have "posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation." The agency's rejection of the merger was widely viewed as a strong rebuke of Wheeler's former lobbying clients in the cable industry.

"When President Obama appointed Tom Wheeler Chairman, many people voiced open suspicion of a man who had led two major industry trade associations," Harold Feld, Senior Vice President at DC-based digital rights group Public Knowledge, said in a statement. "But rather than be the lapdog 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."

A Legacy in Doubt

Wheeler also earned praise from public interest groups by pushing through an ambitious plan to expand the FCC's Lifeline program to help millions of low-income people afford broadband internet access. Consumer groups praised the move as a key step toward closing the nation's persistent "digital divide." Anti-FCC Republicans in Congress, however, opposed the move, and repeatedly tried to undermine the expansion.

With Trump preparing to nominate a new FCC chairman, the Lifeline reform, along with the agency's policies protecting net neutrality and safeguarding consumer privacy, are now in serious jeopardy. Trump's FCC advisors are staunch opponents of net neutrality, and the agency's two Republican commissioners, who will now assume a 2-1 majority at the agency, have made no secret of their desire to dismantle the legal basis underpinning the FCC's open internet protections.


Under a Trump administration, the GOP-controlled FCC is likely to dramatically scale back the agency's ambitions, consistent with the anti-regulatory, "small-government" philosophy often espoused by Republicans. One of Trump's FCC advisors, Mark Jamison, a University of Florida professor and Visiting Fellow at the right-wing American Enterprise Institute, has even gone so far as to propose essentially abolishing the FCC except for its most basic radio spectrum licensing function.

"Under a Republican-led Presidency/Congress, ISPs are likely to see the biggest benefits, assuming an easing of regulations," according to Angelo Zino, a Wall Street telecom analyst at S&P Capital IQ. "This group includes wireless companies like Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint, as well as cable companies such as Comcast; and other broadband providers."

Public interest groups are already preparing to mount a vigorous campaign to defend Wheeler's legacy. "Unfortunately, the next administration has promised to undermine and overturn the major accomplishments of the Wheeler FCC," said Craig Aaron of Free Press. "We thank Tom Wheeler for his public service. And we promise to fight any attempts to attack the best policies advanced during his tenure."

During a press conference following Thursday's meeting, Wheeler took a not-so-subtle shot at Trump's FCC transition team, as well as future Republican FCC officials who might seek to strip away pro-consumer regulations in the service of a supposedly "free-market" ideology.

"Those who chant that government is the problem are wrong, and their chant is dangerous," Wheeler said. "Government isn't some faceless 'them,' it is us. It is 'We The People,' who govern ourselves. Government is where we come together to collectively address common challenges."