Tom Wheeler (pictured right) at his nomination.
There are few jobs in the US government with more power to help or harm the country's tech landscape than the chairmanship of the Federal Communications Commission, the agency that ultimately decides how telecoms and cable companies go about their business. And Tom Wheeler starts his five-year stint at the helm of the FCC under a fair amount of scrutiny: a former lobbyist for both the cable and wireless industries, it's easy to extrapolate that the President Obama-nominated venture capitalist might not have the best interest of consumers in mind.
But are the fears unfounded?
"First of all, we're pro-open networks."
Perhaps looking to keep some of the incredible momentum spun up by his immediate predecessor, interim chairwoman (and current FCC commissioner) Mignon Clyburn, Wheeler made a splash just days into his term by taking action on the long-running issue of legal phone unlocking. "Let's set a goal of including the full unlocking rights policy in the CTIA Consumer Code before the December holiday season," he wrote in a letter to Steve Largent, president of the CTIA — the wireless industry association that Wheeler himself used to lead. That's not necessarily the kind of hard-bound language used by a chairman looking to caretake the status quo.
In an interview with The Verge this week, Wheeler explained some of his guiding principles going into the job. "We are a country driven by our economy, we are coming out of a bad economic time, what is it that networks can do to address that? And I think that the key for that is competition, competition, competition," he said. "Competition" is unquestionably a running theme Wheeler is trying to establish early on; he drove it home during his first FCC blog post earlier this month. It's probably not a message that incumbents like AT&T and Verizon are keen on hearing, especially going into several years of spectrum auctions where spectrum screens — rules that prevent big carriers from owning too much spectrum to ensure fair competition in a given market — are a hot topic. "We have to make sure that where [competition] exists, it continues to exist."
But where the rubber may meet the road for Chariman Wheeler is on net neutrality. One of the perpetually hot topics on the FCC's (and the entire world's) plate, the Commission already has fairly strong rules in place for demanding that all data be treated equal on landline internet connections. Wireless, though, is a different story; Julius Genachowski never committed to putting strong wireless net neutrality rules in place, and Mignon Clyburn — in her brief stint — probably never had a chance to pick up what is sure to become a hornet's nest of debate and rhetoric.
"First of all, we're pro-open networks," Wheeler says. But with VoLTE transitions coming up for most major wireless networks — a move that will turn regular phone calls into streams of bytes no differently than browsing the web or checking Facebook — new net neutrality questions will emerge. Surely a voice call has to be prioritized, right? "We're going to be specifically addressing what are the impacts of something like VoLTE on the values that have always been maintained when someone picks up the phone and expects to make a voice call," he says, but "it's not as a policy trial or ... suddenly going IP and being in a get out of jail free situation."
Wheeler's term will be filled with hot-button issues
Overall, Wheeler leaves us with as many questions as answers — but for an organization that's perpetually mired in striking the balance between consumer and industry, that's probably to be expected. If nothing else, he seems ready and willing to engage in real talk about real problems. Julius Genachowski, by contrast, rarely went off script; for many reporters with the FCC in their purview (this one included), his recycled talking points on "the virtuous cycle of innovation" are forever burned in their mind.
Ultimately, of course, the proof for Wheeler is in the proverbial pudding. He has no shortage of hot-button issues on his plate, ranging from multibillion-dollar spectrum auctions, to the proliferation of fiber to the home, to content debundling, to, of course, net neutrality. It should be a fascinating half decade.