Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Broadband Industry Giants Just Love New Wheeler FCC Pick

As noted in May, the FCC has selected former cable and wireless industry lobbyist Tom Wheeler to replace Julius Genachowski as the head of the FCC. Wheeler has been a top fundraiser for the Obama campaign during the last two election cycles, and it appears he's now getting his political reward for being a loyal foot soldier. Current Commissioner Mignon Clyburn will be the interim head of the FCC while Wheeler awaits his Congressional confirmation.

His blog posts and past interviews give clear illustrations of his pro-carrier positions, and consumer advocates are split on the pick. Groups like Free Press have shown clear skepticism that a lobbyist is going to magically shift his thinking after thirty years and be a progressive, forward-thinking consumer protector. I tend to agree with them.

That's in contrast to Public Knowledge, who breathlessly supported the pick and downplayed concerns about his lobbyist past. Even Susan Crawford, who has spent the last six months selling books that attack this industry's problem with revolving door regulators, helped ensure the Wheeler selection via a letter of support sent to Obama.

What's the thinking here among consumer advocates who are suddenly cheering the appointment of a lobbyist to the top FCC spot?

To be clear, many of these groups have to work actually with him, and aren't afforded the luxury of criticizing him while still wearing a bathrobe and Boba Fett slippers like yours truly. That doesn't make their arguments in favor of his appointment any more cogent. One cornerstone of the argument from the pro-Wheeler consumer advocacy set is that Wheeler's stint as a lobbyist was so long ago (he stopped lobbying for the wireless industry in 2005, not exactly ancient history) that this past doesn't matter. The other cornerstone appears to be that he's just a really nice and smart guy to hang out with at DC functions.

That this logic isn't swaying those who'd like more serious FCC reform isn't too surprising.

Quite often you can weigh just how consumer friendly a regulator is going to be by the response of the industry he'll be regulating. Progressive, pro-consumer regulators get tepid but polite rhetoric about bridging gaps and hoping for the best (see: Elizabeth Warren). Regulators for whom real consumer interests are an afterthought receive gushing adoration from industry. Guess what? The giants in our sector absolutely adore the Wheeler pick.

AT&T's top policy man Jim "searing hubris" Cicconi thinks the Wheeler pick is "inspired" and that he's potentially "one of the most qualified people ever named to run the agency." Wireless industry group the CTIA offered similarly-gushing praise, lauding Wheeler's passion, work ethic, knowledge and creativity. The NCTA, the cable industry's biggest lobbying organization, calls the Wheeler pick exceptional.

I genuinely hope the industry folk praising the Wheeler pick are right, and that their time navigating the halls of DC has brought them insight into his character I simply can't see from my snark outpost here in New York. I sincerely hope he is capable of independent thinking, and brings less timid management to an agency that desperately needs strong, objective leadership less relentlessly marred by the anti-competitive interests of its biggest and wealthiest players.

That said, I've been watching this industry and its endless-parade of empty-rhetoric regulators for too long to blindly believe in promises coming out of DC, or that a man who has spent the majority of his business life lobbying for companies will suddenly grow a genuine interest in seriously addressing consumer issues. If in six months Wheeler is happily helping AT&T gut landline network consumer protections while continuing the proud FCC tradition of ignoring competitive issues, broken usage meters, predatory below-the-line fees and high prices, the consumer advocates and other allegedly progressive sector leaders who assisted in his ascension should be held accountable for their poor judgement.

Read more here ....

Head Of FCC

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