Tech by VICE

FCC Chief Tom Wheeler Defends His Legacy Against Republican Onslaught

The nation’s top telecom regulator knows everything he’s accomplished is in jeopardy.

by Sam Gustin
Nov 17 2016, 8:12pm

Image: TechCrunch/Flickr

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler delivered an impassioned defense of his legacy on Thursday, as he sought to fend off Republican attacks on the agency ahead of Donald Trump's inauguration as president.

In particular, Wheeler sought to defend his signature accomplishments, which include rules protecting net neutrality, the principle that all internet content should be equally accessible to consumers, and rules bolstering consumer privacy online, which are bitterly opposed by the nation's largest cable and phone companies.

Both initiatives are in serious jeopardy as Trump prepares to take office, according to tech policy experts, because newly-emboldened Republicans are likely to seek to dismantle them, effectively undoing major components of Wheeler's pro-consumer agenda.

"Taking a fast, fair and open internet away from the public would be a real mistake," a somber and steely-eyed Wheeler told reporters after the FCC's monthly meeting on Thursday. "Taking away network privacy that consumers enjoy as a result of our decision would be a real mistake."

By law, Wheeler is allowed to stay in his job through 2018. That's not going to happen.

For the first time, the 70-year-old former cable and wireless lobbyist explicitly and publicly acknowledged that his tenure as the nation's top communications regulator will soon be over. "I am committed to a smooth transition," Wheeler said, adding that he serves "at the pleasure of the president" and has "not decided on a departure date."

By law, Wheeler is allowed to stay in his job through 2018. That's not going to happen, however, because it is the prerogative of the incoming president, in this case Trump, to nominate the next FCC chairman.

Wheeler knows this, which is why he and his colleagues deleted every major item on the FCC's Thursday meeting agenda, under extreme pressure from Republican lawmakers who warned him not to push through any major new policies before Trump is inaugurated. With nothing on the agenda, the meeting lasted for about five minutes before Wheeler took questions from the press.

Republicans in both the House and the Senate sent letters to Wheeler this week warning him not to advance "complex, partisan, or otherwise controversial items that the new Congress and new Administration will have an interest in reviewing."

Wheeler capitulated to the Republicans, but he was not happy about it, as he made clear to reporters on Thursday. Wheeler seemed particularly incensed by the term "controversial."

"All of these matters are so-called 'controversial' because they are opposed principally by the largest incumbent firms in the sector," Wheeler said, speaking slowly and enunciating his words carefully. "When so-called 'controversy' is the result of choosing between the broader common good, or those incumbents preferring the status-quo, I believe the public interest should prevail."

Among the items deleted from Thursday's meeting was a measure to rein in the cost of so-called "Business Data Services" (BDS), which are specialized communications links that serve businesses and institutions like hospitals, libraries and schools.

Because of a lack of competition in this market, which is dominated by the likes of AT&T and other telecom giants, these businesses and institutions have been socked with billions of dollars of "overcharges" over the last decade, according to Chip Pickering, CEO of INCOMPAS, a tech industry trade group that has fought to reform the market for these so-called special access services.

In a statement, Pickering assailed the FCC's decision to take BDS reform off the table at the behest of Republican lawmakers, and urged the agency to move forward on the issue. "Failure to act tarnishes this FCC's competition legacy and punishes small businesses, schools and libraries who have been promised faster speeds, lower prices and more competition," said Pickering.

Another item that the FCC abandoned under pressure from Republicans would have expanded the availability of so-called "video described" programming for blind and visually-impaired people. "It is tragic that 1.3 million Americans who are blind, and millions more who are visually-impaired, will not be able to enjoy expanded video description," Wheeler said, his voice bristling with fury. "They deserve better from this commission."

Wheeler's pro-consumer stance stunned many of his former clients in the cable and wireless industries, and delighted many public interest groups. The Ohio native, Obama bundler, and former venture capitalist successfully pushed through the most ambitious telecom policy shift in a generation, when the FCC reclassified internet service providers as "common carriers," requiring them to treat all internet content equally. In the process, Wheeler became an unlikely internet hero.

All of that is in jeopardy, and there's virtually nothing that Wheeler can do about it.

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