From dingo babysitter to net neutrality hero: Tom Wheeler's legacy

When Obama appointed Tom Wheeler, formerly the top lobbyist for both the cable industry and the mobile phone industry to run the FCC, many people (including me) were outraged at the idea of putting such an insider in charge of keeping his own former employers honest (it didn't help that AT&T and Comcast both issued triumphant press releases at the news).

Notoriously, John Oliver compared putting Wheeler in charge of Net Neutrality rules to hiring a dingo to babysit your kids (and expressed skepticism when Wheeler disavowed his dingoship).

But a funny thing happened on the way to the Lessigian Corruption Apocalypse: Wheeler handed down a Net Neutrality order that America could be proud of, and stood by it when the GOP's telcoms-water-carriers tried to kill it.

It's not just net neutrality: Wheeler killed Comcast's Time Warner acquisition; ended state laws prohibiting the creation of competitive municipal broadband networks; changed the definition of "broadband service" from 4Mbs to 25 Mbs; fought for cellphone unlocking; limited data roaming charges; and fought robocalling (and much more).

In an interview with Ars Technica's Jon Brodkin, Wheeler says he was misunderstood from the start. He says that he only lobbied for cable and mobile when they were scrappy upstarts, threatened by big, wealthy incumbents, and that he's always championed the underdog against the establishment.

He also credits reading Tim Wu's The Master Switch, an outstanding book on telcoms policy and competition by one of our best policy scholars.

Wheeler's probably got less than a year left in the job, and he's got a lot he plans on doing before he leaves.

Generally, FCC chairs are replaced with each new president, so Wheeler may have less than a year left on the job. The FCC already has an "enormous agenda between now and the end of the year," Feld noted.

That includes finalizing new cable box competition rules; modernizing the Lifeline program to subsidize broadband for low-income people; overseeing a huge auction to shift spectrum from TV channels to wireless carriers and white space networks; freeing up new spectrum for 5G cellular and faster Wi-Fi; implementing new customer data privacy rules for broadband; finishing proceedings for the transition from traditional landline phone service to IP-based networks; and an investigation of the "special access" market in which wireless carriers purchase capacity from wireline providers.

"If Wheeler gets done everything that's on his plate, he will probably have done more to transform the telecommunications industry than since the days that [former Chairman] Reed Hundt implemented the 1996 [Telecommunications] Act," Feld said.

Wheeler will turn 70 years old on April 5. Because of his age, some observers have pointed out that Wheeler hasn't spent his time as FCC chairman "looking for his next job." (Both the CTIA and NCTA are currently led by former FCC commissioners who moved the other way through Washington's revolving door.)

How a former lobbyist became the broadband industry's worst nightmare
[Jon Brodkin/Ars Technica]

(Image: Jon Brodkin)