Ars Technica Profiles FCC Chair Tom Wheeler

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

Telcos must have been thrilled when the Obama Administration nominated Tom Wheeler to chair the Federal Communications Commission in 2013. AT&T called it “an inspired pick” and Comcast noted Wheeler’s “proven leadership”.

Why all the praise? Because Wheeler used to be a lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries.

Fortunately this story has a happy ending; instead of the big incumbents getting their every evil wish granted, Wheeler has become their worst nightmare. It was always thus, as he tells Ars Technica—he’s been fighting for the little guy his entire career.

The landscape was very different when Wheeler lobbied for the National Cable Television Association in the early 1980s. “Broadcasters wanted to shut down cable companies”, he says. They wanted neither the content nor the competition in the market. He refers to his work with the NCTA as “a crusade”.

Joining the Cellular Telecommunications Industry Association in 1992, he found the wireless industry to be in the same underdog position as cable was a decade earlier. The biggest challenge for cellular carriers at that time was the surcharge they had to pay wireline phone companies to connect to their networks, making cellular service almost prohibitively expensive for users. Wheeler and the CTIA fought hard to get those interconnection fees lowered, and eventually they were.

Now Wheeler helms the FCC. From Ars, here’s a short list of the commission’s recent accomplishments:

  • Reclassified fixed and mobile broadband as Title II common carrier services.
  • Used Title II authority to impose net neutrality rules that forbid blocking, throttling, and giving priority to Web services in exchange for payment.
  • Decided that content providers and network operators should be able to file complaints against ISPs about rates charged for network interconnection.
  • Preempted state laws in North Carolina and Tennessee that prevent the expansion of municipal broadband providers.
  • Raised the definition of broadband from 4Mbps downstream and 1Mbps upstream to 25Mbps/3Mbps, a move that helps justify further regulatory actions designed to promote competition (such as the municipal broadband decision).
  • Refused to approve Comcast’s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable.
  • Pressured Sprint to abandon a potential acquisition of T-Mobile.
  • Voted to create a software replacement for CableCard, forcing cable companies to make TV channels available to makers of third-party devices and software.
  • Proposed a $100 million fine against AT&T, saying the company throttled unlimited data plans without adequately notifying customers about reduced speeds. (AT&T is trying to lower or eliminate the penalty.)
  • Stepped up enforcement in general, with a $3.5 million fine against two small carriers that failed to protect the personal information of low-income customers; various fines against cellular carriers for bill cramming; a $40 million fine to TracFone for throttling and capping “unlimited” data; fines against hotel chains related to Wi-Fi blocking; and more.
  • Pressured wireless carriers into unlocking cell phones so they can be used on competitors’ networks.
  • Pressured Verizon Wireless into dropping a plan to throttle customers who pay for unlimited LTE data.
  • Imposed new rules against robocalling over the objections of a lobby group that represents Google, Netflix, and other Web companies.
  • Handed T-Mobile USA a victory in a fight against AT&T and Verizon Wireless over data roaming charges.
  • Set limits on the amount of spectrum Verizon and AT&T can buy at an upcoming auction, boosting the chances of T-Mobile and other smaller carriers.

Telcos might feel betrayed by their former lobbyist, but Wheeler’s FCC is 100% consistent with his CTIA and NCTA. In Wheeler’s own words: “My history has always been working with the insurgent, not the incumbent.”

Source: Ars Technica

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