An FCC Mystery: Tom Wheeler

Where Obama’s choice for chairman stands on network neutrality is anybody’s guess

If President Obama’s nominee to chair the FCC, Tom Wheeler, is confirmed, there’s a good chance it will only be after he answers a few questions from lawmakers on an issue that’s proved vexing to his predecessor: Network neutrality.

For the uninitiated, eyes glaze over at the mere mention of the principle, which prevents Internet service providers from discriminating against any one source of broadband content. But the issue is of extreme interest to some big companies.

Outgoing FCC chairman Julius Genachowski came up with a compromise plan that set stringent standards for the wired Internet to treat all Web traffic equally, yet left the wireless industry with a degree of flexibility.

Even as public interest groups griped at the light regulatory touch, Genachowski’s move was too much for Verizon, which filed an appeal last July. The fate of net neutrality is now in the hands of a D.C. Circuit court that has a propensity to push back against any government overreach.

Its champions argue that without these rules, the Internet will devolve into a medium on par with cable TV, where lesser-known websites have to pay the Comcasts of the world to gain delivery to their subscribers, or powerful companies like Google will take to charging ISPs for the right to carry their “signal.”

As Wheeler heads into confirmation hearings — which as yet haven’t been scheduled — the prospect of an FCC stripped of its authority over the Internet raises interesting questions regarding his position on the matter — whatever that may be.

At 67, Wheeler would come to the job with an extensive resume, unlike so many previous FCC chiefs. He led the National Cable Television Assn. from 1979 to 1984, and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Assn., now called the Wireless Assn., from 1992 to 2004.

But that has led to divergent views over whether his role as a D.C. insider means he’s more likely to cave to industry whims or more apt to stand up to them. His past as a lobbyist has engendered a dose of skepticism in his nomination from groups like Free Press. And the praise that came from CTIA, Comcast and AT&T, among other industry leaders, may only have given fodder to some public-interest activists concerned that Wheeler will be too cozy with the biz to be an industry watchdog when it counts.

However, a reading of Wheeler’s posts from his Mobile Musings blog, and the praise he’s gotten from some visible and longtime consumer advocates, creates an impression that as FCC chairman, he might not be so quick to back those he once represented.

In one post, written in September 2011, he suggested that FCC enforcement was headed toward irrelevance in the digital age, and that government support, not opposition, to the then-proposed merger of AT&T with T-Mobile would be a “backdoor” way for the government to impose “a new regulatory regime on wireless.”

Gigi Sohn, president and CEO of public interest org Public Knowledge, says that Wheeler’s “wasn’t a pro-industry position by any means. The guy is a consummate pro, a real adult, who cares deeply and believes in government service,” she says. His lobbying background, she adds, is almost a decade in the past, and notes, “You have got to look at where this guy is in his life.” In other words, being at the end of his career means he’s less apt to pull punches that could upset potential future employers.

“I don’t think (he’d take) this job to ride the FCC into irrelevancy,” Sohn says.

His experience in the private sector, says one D.C. policy attorney, also makes him well-suited to call out wireless industry posturing for what it is. That could prove helpful if the current net neutrality rules are struck down, and the FCC weighs the controversial move of reclassifying mobile broadband as a “telecommunications service,” putting the agency on firmer ground.

Reed Hundt, former FCC chairman, says that reports of the FCC’s defeat on net neutrality are premature. He believes there’s a chance Verizon will drop its case, and considers the dustup a dispute over principle that will run counter to Wheeler’s reputation for pragmatism.

That said, Wheeler does have an easy out to avoid the net neutrality issue being a lightning rod to inquisitive Republicans, who have long hated the FCC’s open Internet rules. He can merely say that because the Genachowski plan is stuck in litigation, he’ll have to wait until the D.C. Circuit renders an opinion.