Will FCC Chair Tom Wheeler Keep the Promises He Made in Oakland?

by Mindy Spatt, TURN Communications Director


President Obama’s appointment of Tom Wheeler to chair the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) naturally sparked concern from customer groups.


Although widely respected, Wheeler came to the Commission via an all too typical path- from the industry. 

Wheeler was previously chief executive of the National Cable Television Association (a job now held by Michael Powell, a former FCC Chair himself- talk about a revolving door!).  Wheeler also headed the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association, a cell phone company lobbying organization.  He has zero experience on the consumer side.  Also worrisome is Wheeler’s history as a big donor and fundraiser for President Obama.

Wheeler, a historian himself, takes the helm of the FCC at a historic moment.  The US lags behind other countries in broadband access and penetration.  According to a recent UN report, the US ranks 24th in the world in Internet access.  And while access has been increasing in the US, access isn’t the same as penetration.

Universal broadband isn’t just good public policy, it’s a good economic strategy. Korea continues to have the world’s highest household broadband penetration at over 97%. And its national broadband policy is credited with fueling the countries’ strong economy.  So if the Obama administration is going to sustain the economic recovery, and address income inequality, it must follow though on its stated commitment to universal broadband.  


It will be up to Wheeler to move the agenda forward.  While there has been progress made on access, adoption still lags, especially in low-income communities that can’t afford the rising costs of a broadband connection.


The good news is that Wheeler is addressing some of the criticisms of his industry ties right out of the gate.  His appointment of longtime consumer advocate Gigi Sohn as special counsel was a welcome acknowledgement of the gaping hole in his resume. And Wheeler talked a good game when he came to Oakland for a town hall meeting where TURN ED Mark Toney joined Malkia Cyril of the Center for Media Justice, Greenlining’s Stephanie Chen and other community leaders in a presentation followed by individual comments from the packed audience.

Wheeler promised to hold phone companies accountable, not only for the public subsidies they receive but also for the broader social compact between telecom companies and the public.  “I will turn around to these companies and say, if you want incentives to grow these networks, then your have to uphold the compact,” Wheeler said. “Why is anyone going to subscribe to your service if there is … preferential treatment for someone else?”

Wheeler also heard from public speakers on a broad range of issues including prison phone service, LifeLine programs, broadband access, net neutrality, media ownership and many other related concerns.

Wheeler will have two important opportunities to show he meant what he said in the near future.   

An appeals court has struck down net neutrality rules that the FCC promulgated under previous Chair Julius Genachowski.  The rules were designed to prevent big Internet providers like Comcast, Verizon and AT&T from speeding up preferred content, and making the Internet pay-to-play.  Wheeler has proposed new rules to replace the overturned ones, disappointing some because they are weaker than the previous ones. 


Wheeler will also be able show his stripes when the FCC takes on the proposed Comcast-Time Warner merger. This one is easy to reject.  Most consumers are already disgusted by both companies, but have few other choices for cable.  Commentators, including several former FCC Commissioners, universally agree it would be a disaster for consumers.  Just in case Wheeler doesn’t know that, consumers should contact him at the FCC and let him know.