Analysis Following weeks of speculation and a refusal to state his plans, on Thursday chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), Tom Wheeler, announced he would step down from the role on January 20, allowing president-elect Donald Trump to select a new head of the US comms watchdog.
"Sitting in this chair has been the greatest privilege of my professional career," Wheeler said at a scheduled meeting of the FCC, which will also be the last one for another commissioner, Jessica Rosenworcel, after the Senate refused to confirm her reconfirmation to another term.
Wheeler tried to broker a last-minute deal that would have seen Rosenworcel confirmed in return for his immediate resignation but it didn't make it through, leading to even greater speculation about his intentions.
Traditionally, the FCC chair has stepped down for a new administration's pick, but with Republicans vowing to undermine key policies passed during his three years in charge, and without a fifth commissioner, many suspected he would stay on until his term officially ends in November 2018 in order to protect those policies.
With both Rosenworcel and Wheeler out, the new Trump Administration will have a 2-1 majority on what should be a five-person commission and as one of the two in the majority, Ajit Pai, said last week, it intends to "fire up the weed whacker and remove those rules that are holding back investment, innovation, and job creation" – key among which is the Open Internet Order that guaranteed net neutrality in the US.
Wheeler was in a reflective mood at the meeting in Washington and at a press conference held afterwards. "When you put five Type A personalities together, lots of interesting things happen, including you will not always see eye to eye," he said. "The headlines got built around our differences, but the facts are that together we accomplished a lot."
In truth, he surprised both sides in the unending struggles at the FCC between consumer advocates and Big Cable lobbyists. As a former trade-group lobbyist himself, his nomination was greeted with irritation by public interest groups that feared he would take the side of big business.
In the end, he used the fact that he was at the end of his career to take on the very interests he had represented for so long.
Most notable of course was the decision to classify broadband providers as "Title II" providers – a classification that came from a piece of legislation passed in 1934. It was an unhappy fudge but Wheeler and his advisers saw it as the only way that the FCC could exert its authority over internet service providers and so pass network neutrality rules.
That decision, and the resulting Open Internet Order will be the one thing Wheeler's chairmanship will be remembered for – even if, as the Republicans have promised, it will be dismantled and discarded in the coming years.
The enormous campaign on both sides of the net neutrality debate pulled the often-arcane FCC into the limelight and appeared to signal the end of the dominance of big cable companies and telcos and the emergence of a new power in the form of internet companies like Google.
That new world order was set to be continued by a Clinton Administration, which had gone out of its way to be tech and Silicon Valley friendly. But with the election of Donald Trump, the old interests have reemerged triumphant: Big Oil and Big Cable have taken just about every key position in the new government.
Wheeler will also leave on the table a range of other policies that he was hoping to get through. Most significant of which was yet one more effort to break the cable industry's extraordinary consumer rip-off that is rented cable boxes.
Wheeler's original plan was to force cable companies to put their customer and channel information into an open data format, enabling third parties to create cable boxes – or add cable to their existing streaming media boxes. It would have meant an end to the cable industry's multi-billion-dollar cash cow and they fought hard.
With Rosenworcel's renomination held over her, she refused to sign up to the plan, resulting in a cable-industry-proposed compromise that Wheeler knew would lead nowhere. Even that compromise will now be brushed under the carpet and millions of consumers will continue to be milked – or more accurately, bilked – with monthly rental fees for clunky, worthless boxes.
Wheeler outlined what he believes will be his legacy. "I'm proud of our accomplishments: ensuring faster, open networks; improving universal access; protecting consumers & unleashing spectrum," he tweeted.
As to specifics, during his time in charge, Wheeler:
- Passed the Open Internet Order and reclassified ISPs as Title II providers
- Expanded the current discounted telephone service for poor people to cover internet access
- Helped start the next generation of the 911 public safety system, bringing it in line with modern world
- Held a very successful spectrum auction that should help US mobile network handle ever expanding demand (but also run another auction that was an unmitigated disaster)
- Got through rules that stopped prisoners from being ripped off by phone companies when they called out to friends and family
- Took on big hotel chains and events management companies and enforced decisions that prevented them from forcing people off their own internet services and on to paid-for access services.
- Blocked a few mergers with questionable value for consumers, in particular the Comcast/Time Warner proposal
On the downside, following the passing of the Open Internet Order, Wheeler was responsible for sucking the FCC into the increasingly partisan world of Washington.
He repeatedly used the 3-2 Democrat-Republican majority he had in order to pass plans without offering compromises. He also expanded the FCC into areas where it has a dangerous lack of knowledge and experience, most notably pulling consumer internet issues away from the Federal Trade Commission (FTC).
Wheeler's attempt to take on Big Cable over its rip-off cable box plans has been hailed as a brave stand but in reality it was a wasted effort. His nascent plans to expand data privacy rules onto broadband providers were a dog's dinner. And despite constant prodding by his fellow Republican commissioner, Michael O'Rielly, to overhaul the regulator's horribly outdated rules, procedures and mindset, he never turned his attention to modernizing the regulator in the same way he tried to modernize the industries it oversaw. That would not only have left a legacy that could not be rolled back but would have moved the FCC beyond partisanship.
Most damagingly, by making the FCC more partisan than it needed to be, Wheeler may leave an unpleasant new normal at the federal regular: one, that, ironically enough, may now unravel some of his key accomplishments as much as out of spite as for reasonable policy disagreement.
At his last press conference, Wheeler thanked journalists for "keeping me on my toes." In many respects, that sums up his time as chair of the FCC: he persistently choose to walk a tightrope and take risks rather than follow the path of previous FCC chairs and put caution before action.
In the final reckoning, he was most definitely not a dingo. ®