Dear Tom Wheeler: I'm Sorry I Thought You Were A Mindless Cable Shill

from the our-sincerest-apologies dept

Having written about the FCC for most of my adult life, I’ve grown cynically accustomed to an agency that pays empty lip service to things like consumer welfare and the painful lack of broadband competition. It doesn’t matter which party is in power; the FCC has, by and large, spent the lion’s share of an entire generation ignoring last mile competitive problems and the resulting symptoms of that greater disease. When the agency could be bothered to actually address these issues, the policies were so tainted by the fear of upsetting campaign contributors (read: regulatory capture) they were often worse than doing nothing at all (see our $300 million broadband map that hallucinates speeds and ignores prices or 2010’s loophole-filled net neutrality rules co-crafted by Verizon and Google).

Whether it was former FCC boss turned cable lobbyist Michael Powell’s claims that massively deregulating the sector would magically result in telecom Utopia (tip: that didn’t happen) or Julius Genachowski being utterly terrified of taking any meaningful stand whatsoever, the broadband industry has spent decades governed by an agency that, at its best, is too timid to do its job, and, at its worst, is an obvious revolving-door lap dog to an industry it’s supposed to regulate.

So in 2013 when it was announced that a former lobbyist for both the wireless and cable industries would be the next FCC boss, the collective, audible sighs of disgust unsurprisingly rattled the Internet. I, like many others, believed we were bearing witness to a twisted culmination of decades of regulatory capture, a giant, living, breathing middle finger to a public hungry for a more consumer and innovator-friendly FCC. John Oliver even put Wheeler’s name in lights when he infamously compared hiring the former cable lobbyist to employing a dingo as a babysitter:

Most people (with a few notable industry exceptions) believed Wheeler was the final nail in a grotesque, campaign-cash stuffed telecom coffin long under construction. We were painfully, ridiculously wrong.

Since coming into office, Wheeler has raised the base definition of broadband to 25 Mbps to aggressively highlight how three-quarters of the country lack more than one competitive option at that speed. He’s started threatening wireless ISPs for using throttling and congestion as bogeymen to make an extra buck. Wheeler also surprised everyone by reclassifying ISPs as common carriers and pushing tougher net neutrality rules. More importantly (I believe), he’s spearheaded an effort to kill ISP-crafted, state protectionist laws designed specifically to hinder broadband competition, an issue the FCC had spent the last fifteen years ignoring. Then, last week, Wheeler played the starring role in killing an ugly Comcast merger most sector analysts originally believed would see little regulatory resistance.

In fact, if you read profiles on Wheeler, he’s turned out to be a complete 180 from the thinking of a traditional revolving-door regulator, basing his decisions on all available information — even if that data conflicts with previously-held beliefs (a unique alien indeed in 2015). And while it’s true that massive grass roots advocacy helped shift Wheeler’s thinking on issues like Title II, his embrace of issues like municipal broadband required little to no shoving, since the lion’s share of the public had no idea the issue existed. One of the biggest reasons Wheeler’s willing to stand up to the broadband industry? He’s 69, and no longer biting his tongue and biding his time for the next cushy lobbyist or think tank gig. Perhaps we should make a rule that all future FCC bosses must be on the brink of retirement to avoid what we’ll henceforth call Michael Powell syndrome.

Still, watching Wheeler fills me with cognitive dissonance, as if my frequently-disappointed brain isn’t quite sure what to do with an FCC Commissioner capable of objective thought free of AT&T, Comcast and Verizon lobbyist detritus. As a sure sign of the looming apocalypse, last week I watched an FCC Commissioner issue a statement about protecting competition — and actually mean it:

“Comcast and Time Warner Cable?s decision to end Comcast?s proposed acquisition of Time Warner Cable is in the best interests of consumers. The proposed transaction would have created a company with the most broadband and video subscribers in the nation alongside the ownership of significant programming interests. Today, an online video market is emerging that offers new business models and greater consumer choice. The proposed merger would have posed an unacceptable risk to competition and innovation especially given the growing importance of high-speed broadband to online video and innovative new services.”

Though his tenure’s unfinished, it may not be a stretch to say that a man most of us believed would be the epitome of revolving door dysfunction has proven to be one of the most consumer- and startup-friendly FCC Commissioners in the agency’s history. Granted that may not be saying much; caring more about consumers than Martin, Powell and Genachowski is like getting an award for beating a handful of lobotomized ducklings at a hundred yard dash. And none of this is to classify Wheeler as a saint — the agency’s net neutrality rules have some very concerning loopholes and the FCC still refuses to talk much about pricing, whether that’s the problems inherent in usage caps, unreliable meters, or sneaky below the line fees.

Still, it’s a lesson learned in letting your mind run on cynicism autopilot, and it’s a reminder that even our very broken, campaign-cashed soaked government can still occasionally manage to give birth to consumer-friendly policies. So in short, the tl;dr version is this: I apologize to you, Tom Wheeler, for believing you were a mindless cable shill. I was wrong.

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Companies: at&t, comcast, verizon

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Comments on “Dear Tom Wheeler: I'm Sorry I Thought You Were A Mindless Cable Shill”

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Anonymous Coward says:

Even a broken clock is right twice a day

Yes, Wheeler is 69 and close to retirement. He doesn’t need to protect his future employment options. But, once he is gone, it’s right back into the regulatory capture quagmire.

The folks on the internet have stated loudly that we just want ISPs to be dumb pipes. Deliver the bits we requested at the speed you promised and do nothing else.

But, instead, it seems congress is intent on just letting us, a captured audience, be fleeced by these companies with very little protection from it. So, while Wheeler may have done what he can to implement some consumer protections today, I’m not terribly confident that the next guy/gal will share that same goal.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Even a broken clock is right twice a day

He is a republican. If he wants a chance in the republican primary, he has to be able to either ride on the god segment (which would require moral regulation like supporting filtering to “protect the children” instead of economic regulation promoting disgusting concepts like freedom), ride on commercial interests (of which large ISPs are significant) or ride on anti-government sentiments (which would include “keeping big government out of the intertube!” as an important position to stay ideologically consistent).

Supporting this kind of regulation would be hubris, an economic disaster for the party or ideological impurity. Pick your poison.

Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re:

To be fair, his time on the “other side” was spent working with smaller cable companies, and wireless companies BEFORE they were the giants of today. Many consumer advocates had made this point during his appointment, but I couldn’t see through my cynical shades to acknowledge that was a good point. Of course I had to go back and put money on it, I probably would still probably not take those odds.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re: Re:

We might be cynical, but we surely have reason to. Time and time again we have supported people who seem like they actually care about the public and what would be best for the country or even the world as a whole, only to have them turn upside down. Very few stand by their promises anymore and they break their word so blatantly and without consequence that it is sickening. I keep hoping that we get someone honest when we vote them in, but there are so few that I feel like I am playing a lottery.
Oh yes, we have reason to be skeptical, and while it is nice to have someone actually fighting for us, we have got to remember that this guy was on the other side very recently.
Either he was a sellout from the beginning or he somehow saw the light all of the sudden.

Anonymous Coward says:

Re: Re: Re:

It could also be that media like Techdirt and public perception of the whole thing helped influence his decisions. He knows that if he scammed the public and later benefited from those interests he helped the public will give him a very hard time. That’s not to say he gets no credit for actually considering the public interest here, it’s a good thing in a time where it seems most politicians have absolutely no public shame for putting their own interests over the public interest (ie: secretive meetings with industry interests, secrecy in general and mass surveillance and attempts to go after whistleblowers, etc…).

Teamchaos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Kudos, but...

Sorry. I figured folks could google it.

Here are three sources:

Mason Wheeler (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Kudos, but...

These articles only point out that President Obama asked him to consider a certain position, which is a far cry from “Obama changed his mind for him.” As an independent agency of the government, the President of the USA does not have that kind of power over the FCC, either in theory or in practice, because when it comes down to it, he can’t fire Tom Wheeler for not doing what he wants.

Teamchaos (profile) says:

Re: Re: Kudos, but...

The problem being that the FCC is supposedly an independent agency.


Karl Bode (profile) says:

Re: Re: Re: Kudos, but...

We’ve talked about this a little before. There’s nothing wrong with a White House publicly stating a desired outcome:

And while political pressure still may have played a role, that political pressure was the result of grass roots outrage.

JP Jones (profile) says:

Re: Kudos, but...

Um, no. The FCC was already discussing net neutrality regulations before Obama weighed in. As someone already pointed out, the president cannot directly interfere with an agency’s policies.

Really, Obama had nothing to lose by speaking in favor of net neutrality. The news media had already made it a partisan issue so Republicans were going to be unhappy regardless of his position. And everyone else looked at it going “hey, the president is smart!”

Not only that, the FCC was going to do it anyway. He basically got a bunch of independent support for free. Good political move (which, let’s face it, if you’re the president you’re probably a pretty good politician) but I doubt it made much of a difference to the actual net neutrality rules being passed.

Anonymous Coward says:

“In fact, if you read profiles on Wheeler, he’s turned out to be a complete 180 from the thinking of a traditional revolving-door regulator, basing his decisions on all available information — even if that data conflicts with previously-held beliefs (a unique alien indeed in 2015).”

If only copy protection laws were based on evidence and data and not on wild speculation, wishful thinking, and politician buying by the ruthless middlemen. Heck, we still get the dishonest shills that come around here and comment with the well refuted and unsupported “it usually takes decades for most works to recover their investment. Why would people invest unless copy protection lengths were so long” lie. When they have to resort to outright lying to make their argument, and repeating the same refuted lies over and over, then you know their argument is garbage.

Anonymous Coward says:

Awesome Karl but... not just no, but HELL NO!

“Perhaps we should make a rule that all future FCC bosses must be on the brink of retirement to avoid what we’ll henceforth call Michael Powell syndrome.”

Wheeler is absolutely the exception not the rule. We need exactly the opposite. Advanced age is much more likely to result in an official that is clueless about the impacts of these sorts of policy decisions on technology and innovation than anything else (e.g. Ted Stevens) instead and hasn’t been corrupted by the behemoth corporate political machine. It’s great the Wheeler is working out but this is like saying that because someone survived a car accident that resulted in the car catching fire due to being able to get out quickly because they weren’t wearing a seat belt, that making a habit of not wearing seat belts in cars is a good idea.

Anonymous Coward says:

Taking the bets if you get someone near retirement age, Comcast will stop offering them cushy jobs and will start actively filling their bank accounts with cold-hard retirement cash instead…..

Not that they haven’t bribed dozens of congressmen, senators (a few presidents) already this way of course…..

did I say bribed? I [of course] meant contributed several hundred million dollars to their campaign fund (even those without campaigns OR a campaign fund!)

Anonymous Coward says:

Wheeler of course HAD to appear initially like a corporate lickspittle, otherwise they’d have suppressed his career quick-smart.
(Comcast bribes and/or assassinations spring to mind).
Once he’s in power he can then do what he truly wanted all long, and show the ISPs that he took them totally utterly and completely for a ride.

Somewhere deep in the bowels of Comcast HQ (Third level of Hell, turn right at the screaming nuns) there’s an executive with a vein pulsing in his forehead….

DocGerbil100 (profile) says:

Fair enough, so. :)

I can’t blame anyone for misreading what Wheeler was going to be like. All signs pointed to yet another corporate cock-knocker who would grease the wheels for big business as far as he could get away with.

That this hasn’t happened is astounding and part of my brain is still expecting him to say “oh, wait, I made a mistake, lets have these rules instead”, followed by a big, juicy helping of freshly-butchered consumer rights.

It seems like we all got the man wrong. Kudos to Karl Bode for acknowledging this. Even more kudos for Wheeler, the best man for the job – and a far better man for it than anyone expected. 🙂

vdev (profile) says:

roll roll roll

Wheeler is an amazing breath of fresh air in an environment that had been *so* bad for *such* a long time.

Those in the TFH brigade will claim that he’s just tempering the fire for a while and soon things will revert to “normal”. I disagree – there has been a HUGE change in sentiment in the past year or so and only the really stupid have failed to notice. I categorize Comcast as #2 only because some Republican-candidates-for-President have jumped even harder on the kill-net-neutrality bandwagon.

My expectation, for which I have long argued, is that the telecommunications (“carriage”) business will be separated from the information (“content”) one as some states have done with energy. And has been done in many other countries withe telecommunications and content.

This is the notion that it’s not good to have your service provider (ISP) also run movie studios and TV networks. And that people who don’t subscribe to that ISP can’t get some of that content.

With the de-merger focus currently going on, the “big thing” in Wall Street may be some strategic unravellings in the next few months. The ISP business is sort-of stable because of the localization but content is where all the action will be – because it’s nationwide. Access is poles-and-wires (perceived as low-tech, low margin, but guaranteed) and it’s local. And sometimes regulated. Content is sexy, hi-tech, high-margin, nationwide but is more risky because there are lots of competitors.

The ISP-content nexus is starting to unravel – which is good. We should eliminate it forever.

GEMont (profile) says:

Believers be levers.

Dunno about all that apparent good news.

My cynicism is still telling me all of the apparently pro-consumer “good shit” is just PR trickery to blur the scene so the really big hammer blow will land without its approach being seen by the public.

Reasoning: if the Wheeler Critter was really on the public’s side, he would not have been allowed to take on the position he holds. And if he was so sneaky that he just pretended to be a corporate shill until he landed the job, then he would have been removed the second he showed his anti-corporate, pro-consumer stripes.

Maybe I’m wrong. But I won’t be holding my breathe in anticipation of legislation that actually denies the Big Boys their Divine Right of Unrestricted Profit and Megalomania Monopoly.

Methinks we simply have yet to see the corporate hammer that is about to fall – and its very likely gonna be a BIG ONE, and one which the corporations can all claim was not their fault.

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