Tom Wheeler - The Halftime Report

This is a good time to assess what FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler has accomplished since November 2013 -- and what is to come

Tom Wheeler’s tenure as Federal Communications Commission Chairman is at the halfway point. This is a good time to assess what he has accomplished and what is to come.

When he was sworn in as FCC Chairman in November 2013, Tom Wheeler knew that his chairmanship likely would not last much more than three years. If a Republican is elected President in 2016, a new (Republican) Acting Chair will be named on Inauguration Day. While Wheeler could continue on as a Commissioner, custom and logic dictate that he will resign in that scenario. If a Democrat is elected, Wheeler would continue for a few months until a new Chair is named and confirmed. (A new Democratic President might choose to keep Wheeler on, assuming he wished to continue in office, but that circumstance is unlikely.)

The template for an effective chairmanship is to identify major priorities and get them underway as quickly as possible. A substantial part of the agency’s agenda is beyond the Chairman’s control; applications for the FCC’s approval of the sale of media and telecommunications companies (like AT&T’s proposed acquisition of satellite TV provider DirecTV), legislative mandates and ongoing regulatory proceedings cannot be ignored. There are a number of small things that can be done fairly quickly. However, there are only a few initiatives which a chairman can use to build his (and hopefully, perhaps soon, her) legacy.

Chairman Wheeler is acutely aware of the ticking clock, as reflected by this recent speech given by one of his top aides. He started out quickly; within a few weeks after his arrival, he had jawboned the wireless industry into changing its policy refusing to unlock customers’ cellphones. This not only showed a desire to get things done, but was also a response to critics who had opposed his confirmation because of his history as a cable and wireless industry lobbyist. He also began a review of the agency’s operating procedures, which demonstrated that he intended to manage the agency aggressively. More importantly, Wheeler began to work on his major legacy issues: reform and expansion of universal service, promoting broadband deployment, and making more spectrum available for wireless broadband.

Chairman Wheeler has already accomplished a great deal

A year and a half later, Wheeler has already accomplished a great deal. Putting aside his core agenda for a moment, he has, among other things, rolled back interstate prison phone call rates and started work on addressing intrastate rates, tackled the thorny and abstruse question of “special access” wholesale rates, expanded closed captioning requirements to Internet video, and eliminated the archaic TV sports blackout rule. Wheeler has also brought on an aggressive new enforcement team which has generated huge settlements for consumer protection violations. The Wheeler tenure is also notable for what the FCC has not done, specifically its refusal to approve the proposed sale of Time Warner Cable to Comcast and convincing Softbank, which owns Sprint, not even to try to buy T-Mobile.

Even as his FCC did all of those things, Chairman Wheeler has retained a focus on his central objectives. Universal service reform is well underway, and (as of this month) the FCC will begin to expand a reformed Lifeline service to broadband. The FCC has taken a number of steps to expand broadband deployment, including redefining its broadband speed benchmark and repositioning the E-rate for schools and libraries towards broadband. It has initiated a multifaceted effort to develop a regulatory framework to hasten the transition of the nation’s telecommunications network to Internet Protocol. The Wheeler FCC has also voted to preempt two state laws which restrict municipalities from building their own broadband networks. On the spectrum front, Chairman Wheeler has supervised a successful spectrum auction, expanded spectrum sharing policies, jawboned the Defense Department into giving up some of its exclusive spectrum rights, and moved to make more spectrum available for unlicensed uses. Perhaps most importantly, he has pressed to insure that the FCC will be able to conduct its complicated 600 MHz spectrum auction by late 2016, i.e, before his time is up.

Net Neutrality deserves special mention

Net Neutrality deserves special mention. While it falls in the category of matters that Chairman Wheeler inherited, it has become the most visible and, perhaps, the most sweeping of his undertakings and its success or failure in the courts will undoubtedly define his legacy. Having initially determined to take a middle of the road approach to the issue in responding to the January 2014 appeals court decision rejecting the scheme enacted by his predecessor, Wheeler eventually acceded to the lobbying efforts of the tech and public interest communities and agreed to impose Net Neutrality by using the stronger powers available under Title II of the Communications Act. As the appeals wend their way through the courts, the FCC will devote significant resources to protection and implementation of the new rules.

In addition to considering telecommunications transactions (such as Charter’s effort to acquire Time Warner Cable), there undoubtedly will be many other things the Wheeler FCC will undertake in the coming months. However, the agenda for the next year and a half is largely established, and Chairman Wheeler will be judged by his success on the projects he has already started.

By Andrew Jay Schwartzman.