Celebrating Chairman Wheeler’s Gift to the American People

Reviewing 2016 is a bit of a challenge as the year can be divided – for me, at least – as pre-November 8 and post-November 8. But I know there are some constants in this ever-changing world, values worth fighting for as increasing numbers of Americans express fear and insecurity.

At the beginning of 2016, I committed Benton to serving public interest advocates as they strive to ensure media and telecommunications enhance American democracy.

I reaffirmed our belief…

That everyone needs affordable access to the latest, most powerful communications technologies.

That promoting diversity, encouraging a range of views, public discourse and the free exchange of information is essential because sharing ideas leads us to better solutions.

That to achieve equity in opportunity to make our lives and our country better, we need to overcome differences and history that have created barriers to full participation.

In the wake of the election, I returned to these values and asked that we all consider the fundamental power of communication to bring us together, not further divide us. But we can only tap into that power if we all have access to the tools to receive, create and share information and ideas.

In reviewing the successes of the last year, but, more broadly, the last three years, the person I keep returning to is Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler.

On December 2, 2013, in his first major address as Chairman, Tom Wheeler stressed that the FCC is the public’s representative in the ongoing network revolution and he promised to use “the full authority granted to us by Congress to protect competition,” accessibility, interconnection, and public safety and security.

Wheeler’s major efforts have been to promote broadband deployment with a particular emphasis on making available more spectrum for broadband use. He supervised a successful spectrum auction, launched the world’s first incentive auction, expanded spectrum sharing policies, talked the Defense Department into giving up some of its exclusive spectrum rights, and moved to make more spectrum available for unlicensed uses.

Chairman Wheeler has strengthened Universal Service Fund programs so that more broadband will be deployed to rural areas, schools and libraries. He also led the FCC to make broadband affordable for low-income households. He initiated a multi-faceted effort to develop a regulatory framework to hasten the transition of the nation’s basic telephone network to Internet Protocol and to update the guarantees that all Americans have an opportunity to succeed using the networks of tomorrow.

Chairman Wheeler also took arrows from all sides of the network neutrality debate as the FCC acted to preserve and protect the open Internet after a remand from the courts. Criticized for his initial middle-of-the-road approach, Wheeler eventually ensured network neutrality by using the stronger powers available under Title II of the Communications Act.

And these are just his broadband-related accomplishments. He also addressed the exorbitant rates being charged for prison inmates’ telephone calls to their families and loved ones. He stepped up the FCC’s efforts to enforce rules in place that protect vulnerable people, collecting hundreds of millions of dollars in fines, settlements, and refunds for consumers.

Chairman Wheeler has upheld the public interest, recognized the power of communications to strengthen communities, and acted to modernize and reform programs that bring open, affordable, high-capacity broadband to all Americans. His legacy is the opportunities for all Americans to connect to jobs, education, healthcare, and family. As we enter this holiday season, I am thankful for Chairman Tom Wheeler’s gifts to the American people.

To me, what is amazing about his many accomplishments can’t always be measured by the dockets he opened, the votes he won, or the initiatives he proposed. The day-to-day impacts of his actions can often be more readily seen in the child who can now reach a hand across a keyboard to access a whole new universe of knowledge thanks to gigabit connections to the school and Wi-Fi in the classroom. Or in the young mother who can now coordinate work and her child’s medical care thanks to her Lifeline connection. Or the small business owner who can now compete on a level playing field with its bigger business competitors thanks to a free and open Internet. Or the community that was once left behind, that is able to get ahead with new broadband options.

In other words, it’s not the orders he voted or the computers he connected, but the lives he touched in ways both big and small. I expect they will be felt not just for a year, or a chairman’s term, but in the case of that little girl … it just may change her life.

By Adrianne B. Furniss.