Chairman Tom Wheeler will be stepping down as FCC Chairman as of January 20, 2017; the day President Obama leaves office. The decision is not surprising, as FCC chairmen typically leave their position when a new administration takes the helm, but Wheeler had not yet made it official. His departure emphasizes the apprehensive uncertainty that has troubled advocates of municipal networks, local telecommunications authority, and network neutrality, as well as a long list of other public policy concerns that affect our future through technology.
In a statement released on December 15, Chairman Wheeler wrote:
“Serving as FCC Chairman during this period of historic technological change has been the greatest honor of my professional life. I am deeply grateful to the President for giving me this opportunity. I am especially thankful to the talented Commission staff for their service and sacrifice during my tenure. Their achievements have contributed to a thriving communications sector, where robust investment and world-leading innovation continue to drive our economy and meaningful improvements in the lives of the American people. 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.”
He Proved Himself
When Tom Wheeler was appointed as 31st Chairman of the FCC in November 2013, we had our concerns. He was following Julius Genachowski, one of the worst FCC Chairs in modern history, who had been appointed in Obama's first term. He had run both cable and wireless industry trade groups, but was strongly defended by Susan Crawford and Gigi Sohn when public interest groups opposed him. He strongly surpassed our hopes for what the FCC could achieve.
Historically, the FCC has been a "captured" regulator, largely operating in favor of the largest telecommunications firms in a revolving door fashion. But Chairman Wheeler and Commissioners Clyburn and Rosenworcel listened to grassroots groups as well as industry, making important decisions to encourage more investment and choices in high quality Internet access. They also made historic decisions on prison phone rates and crafted new rules to make sure everyone could use the Internet, regardless of how able-bodied that person is.
Wheeler and Clyburn in particular recognized the value of municipal Internet networks in improving local Internet choice so residents and local businesses could, finally, get the fast, affordable, reliable Internet access they need to move forward in the digital economy. For us at the Institute for Local Self-Reliance’s Community Broadband Networks Initiative, Chairman Wheeler’s willingness to take on North Carolina and Tennessee state laws was a bold and inspirational move. Even though the decision was reversed by the appellate court, it helped clear a path on moving forward as local communities find way to improve local connectivity. We are better off because of Chairman Wheeler's bold leadership.
Just a few of the other accomplishments from Wheeler’s FCC include:
- Created network neutrality rules protecting consumers and competition by reclassifying Internet access as a Title II telecommunications service.
- Extended the “Lifeline” subsidy program for low-income individuals and families so it now applies to Internet access OR telephone service.
- Helped block a harmful merger: Comcast - Time Warner Cable
- Created strong privacy rules for Internet access subscribers.
- Expanded protections for incarcerated people so they and their families are not taken advantage of by Inmate Calling Service providers, who used to charge unreasonable rates.
- Updated the 911 system for public safety, increasing response time and saving lives.
We wish Chairman Wheeler had more time to address important issues that his agency has left outstanding - zero rating and bandwidth caps primarily. But we also believe that given more time Chairman Wheeler could have pushed the FCC in a direction of respecting how local firms are different from the biggest providers and that the FCC should not make as many requirements of them while holding the largest providers more to account. It would have been great to reverse the massive giveway of billions of dollars to AT&T, CenturyLink, and other massive telephone firms for practically no return in rural areas as the first part of a program to ensure rural areas had much better connections for a fraction of the cost from AT&T et al ... but there was only so much time and so much opposition from the deep pockets of the massive firms that will now call the shots in the new Trump FCC. <sigh>
What The Future Holds
Many of us who have helped the agency move beyond its role as a captured agency now expect to focus on defending the protections that Chairman Wheeler championed. Whatever the next four years and the next FCC Chairman bring, we will, along with a number of other public interest organizations and allies, try to hold them accountable for their actions.
For those who only became involved in telecom matters in the last 3 years, prepare for a whole different FCC.