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Outgoing FCC Chair Tom Wheeler on the future of telecom regulation

Molly Wood Jan 23, 2017
Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Tom Wheeler speaks during his keynote conference at the Mobile World Congress back in 2015. David Ramos/Getty Images

Outgoing FCC Chair Tom Wheeler on the future of telecom regulation

Molly Wood Jan 23, 2017
Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission Tom Wheeler speaks during his keynote conference at the Mobile World Congress back in 2015. David Ramos/Getty Images

Telecommunications policy is not exactly a great topic of conversation for a party. But it is really important for every user. We are used to having a fair amount of choice when it comes to who we get our internet from, how much we pay, and what kind of internet we are getting.

But as broadband and wireless internet service providers merge more with the companies that make the stuff we want to get online, the choices we make as users matter even more. And telecom policy has a huge impact on all of this. 

During his tenure as Federal Communications Commission chairman, Tom Wheeler pushed pretty aggressively for all information to be delivered at equal speeds to the user over the internet. He stepped down on Friday, when Donald Trump became president. His successor is expected to be Republican Ajit Pai. We spoke with Wheeler about the future of telecom regulation. 

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

Ben Johnson: So technically you’re no longer chairman. Let’s talk about the regulations you created. How do you expect them to affect things moving forward?

Tom Wheeler: Well, I think it’s really important that we have protected a fast, fair, and open internet. And the question now becomes: how will the new administration respond to that? Will they say, “OK, there are half a dozen companies in America that don’t like it and therefore we should undo what was previously done?” Or, do they say that the internet is the most important asset of the 21st century, and that tens of thousands of companies and millions of consumers are affected by what happens, and it must be fast, fair and open. And that’s a question that is yet to be answered.

Johnson: Yeah and it’s not just the government. Right. I mean you you talk a lot about network owners’ responsibilities to network users.

Wheeler: Right.

Johnson: And when you look at, for instance, how T-Mobile is delivering some of its content, how are you thinking about how wireless providers are trying to get around delivering all content equally? Are you worried about your efforts maybe being in vain?

Wheeler: So the key thing that we did when we developed our open internet rules was to say that there needed to be a referee on the field who could make judgments and throw a flag when necessary. And so there have been a lot of innovative things that have been done by T-Mobile and others. And what we were in the process of doing was looking at those. And then we ran out of time.

Johnson: So what does that mean that you ran out of time?

Wheeler: So we put out a report literally in the last couple of weeks of our time at the commission in which we talked about the concept of what’s called “zero rating” and how there are many positive things about “zero rating.” Free is good. But if a carrier, the company that you’re getting your service from, is using their ownership of the network to favor themselves to keep you from having access to a competitor at equivalent terms, that’s not a good idea. And AT&T and Verizon in particular have been favoring their own video service at the cost of consumers being able to use other video services. And we raised the flag about that, and then time ran out.

Johnson: And this is where things get complicated, right, when a wireless provider also becomes a content owner? I was going to ask you what you think about Verizon’s acquisition of Yahoo in this regard. What happens when wireless providers become content owners?

Wheeler: So that’s a great question, Ben. And, you know, the carriers — the companies that run the networks — want to get into the so-called edge services. They want to own Yahoo or provide video or whatever the case may be. And that’s all well and good if their activities as networks are responsible. But if they use their network position to give themselves an unfair competitive advantage in their non-network activities, that’s harmful to competition, that’s harmful to consumers. And that’s what we were calling out in that particular “zero rating” activity. What’s interesting to me is that you would think that the network operators would embrace open internet rules rather than try and gut them, because if they have that kind of guaranteed good behavior, there’s all the more rationale that they ought to be allowed into non-network activities. But if there is no assurance that that the network is going to be fast, fair and open, and it may get used in an anti-competitive way, then you gotta scratch your head and say, “Well, then why should they be allowed into these other activities?”

Johnson: Right. So why are they acting in a way that you don’t expect them to?

Wheeler: I’m not sure I understand what you mean.

Johnson: Well, you’re saying you’d expect them to be to be pro-these open internet rules. But it seems like that’s not the case in some cases. So why not?

Wheeler: Go figure. So here you have AT&T suing us in court to overturn the open internet rules, while at the same time using the open internet rules to get their video service — that competes with cable — on to Comcast and Charter’s broadband service. 

Johnson: You seem annoyed about this.

Wheeler: Go figure. It doesn’t make any sense.

Johnson: To this point, what sort of telecom policy do you think we can expect under the Trump administration?

Wheeler: I’m the wrong guy to ask that question, Ben. I don’t know.

Johnson: But you could probably guess, right? I mean, can you give us a sense of your thoughts?

Wheeler: Well, I hope that the Trump administration and the incoming FCC leadership will recognize that their job here at the FCC is to represent American consumers and to protect competition. And that ought to come first, second, third and fourth in their priorities.

Johnson: Do you think that’s gonna happen?

Wheeler: We’ll see. They’re the ones that control that.

Johnson: Let’s talk about your assumed successor. It seems like you two don’t exactly see eye to eye on some of this stuff.

Wheeler: I think it’s fair to say that we have, on major issues, we have differed in our approaches. 

Johnson: So do you have any sense of how Ajit Pai‘s going to sort of take this forward?

Wheeler: No.

Johnson: You guys don’t talk, you’re not hanging out having coffee? 

Wheeler: Well, you know, it’s an interesting story that I had a regularly scheduled meeting every other week with every commissioner here at the FCC for an hour, in which we would sit down and talk about, “How do we work together? What are common concerns? What are the things they want to make sure that we’re focusing on?” And for the last two years, Commissioner Pai has canceled every one of those meetings.

Johnson: Are you serious?

Wheeler: Yes. So it’s hard to work together when you cancel meetings to talk together. 

Johnson: What does that say about the environment of Washington right now to you?

Wheeler: I think it speaks for itself. It’s sad, but it speaks for itself.

Johnson: Let’s change gears a little bit. I want to talk to you about voice over IP. The commission during your tenure moved the country forward in transferring wired phone service online. This, of course, opens up a lot of avenues for services and for users. But I should say, the other day my office lost internet, which of course impacted our phone service. How were you thinking about the reliability of internet-based phone service going forward now that the country has started to make this transition?

Wheeler: It is really important that there be backup power. So the copper lines of the old telephone network used to carry their own power with them. So when the electricity in your house went down, the phone still worked. But your internet line, fiber, can’t carry electricity with it. And so the alternative is to have backup power. We wanted to require backup power and actually had a proposed rule making on that. Our Republican friends opposed it and we ended up with a with a program where we were able to require that the network providers offer consumers the choice, but didn’t actually have to provide it unless the consumers asked for it.

Johnson: How do you think that’s going to play out? I mean, are we going to see more outages and then eventually consumers will ask for it? 

Wheeler: Well I think you’ve had your own experience, and consumers will probably see more experiences like that, and then hopefully the issue can be revisited.

Johnson: You seem really excited about auctioning off spectrum. 

Wheeler: Yes, sir.

Johnson: Beyond making the government and the services auctioning it off money, what do you think it’s going to do for modern technology?

Wheeler: Well, if the pathway of the 21st century is the internet, that internet is increasingly going to be wirelessly delivered. And they’re not making spectrum anymore. You know, you can string new fiber, but you can’t make new spectrum. So the reallocation of spectrum from one application to another is very important. And what we have just concluded here, gotten to the final stage of, is the world’s first incentive auction where we created a marketplace where broadcasters could say, “Hey, I’ll sell my spectrum to you for this price.” We then repackage the spectrum and turn around and sell it forward to the to the wireless carriers. And any of the difference goes for deficit reduction. And we just, last week, reached what we call the final stage rule where that market was successful. And we’re going to be reallocating 84 megahertz worth of spectrum, which is the second-largest spectrum auction that this agency has ever had.

Johnson: But what’s that going to lead to for the user? I mean does that mean sort of more 5G connectivity for me? Does it mean more ability for Internet of Things devices to all be online at the same time? Better, you know, antennas in my wireless devices? What does it mean?

Wheeler: So this is spectrum that is what’s called low-band spectrum, which means that it has the best physics properties. It goes further, it goes through building walls. And so this means that you can have better coverage in urban areas going inside high rises and things like this, and better coverage in rural areas because the spectrum goes further. And  that kind of coverage is what’s going to deliver not just voice, but data is going to connect the Internet of Things, is going to hook up your car, is going to have “n + 1” different applications in the 21st century.

Johnson: You’re a guy who loves his technology history. You’ve looked carefully at the telegram, the railroad, the telephone to lay out your own definitions of user needs and policy regarding service providers. I wonder if you thought, I assume you have, about how history will judge your tenure and what you hope people will take from your time as chairman. 

Wheeler: Well, as an amateur historian, I think that it is historians who ought to make those kind of decisions. I really do believe that I’m the worst guy to be able to answer that question. I am proud of what the team at the FCC — and that’s the important thing. This was a really talented team here and I’m proud of what the team was able to accomplish. And I’ll let the facts speak for themselves.

Johnson: You’re no longer tied to government bureaucracy. What are you going to do next?

Wheeler: Well, first of all, I’m going to take some time off and decompress, and I’m wildly looking forward to that. And then I hope to write, teach, and maybe do a little consulting.

Johnson: All right, interesting. Consulting for who?

Wheeler: I have no idea because nobody’s talked to me about it.

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