As the dust now settles on the Comcast- Time Warner Cable deal, it is as good a time as any to unfold the layered reasoning behind Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler’s decision to oppose what was once thought to be a sure-thing merger.
Aside from the many legal and policy rationales put forth by experts, we need to look no further than the chairman’s need to reclaim his legacy and assert his leadership over an independent federal agency.
With Comcast as the company everybody loves to hate, Wheeler saw no political downside to denying the merger. On the contrary, he found in it a convenient vehicle to reassert his dominion over an agency castigated by Congress as being too cozy and too compliant with President Obama’s agenda. After all, who better to stand up to than a corporate giant whose leaders golf, dine and speak comfortably with the commander in chief.
A COMPLICATED MAN
Tom Wheeler is a complicated man. An avowed history buff , he can recite bygone tales from Albemarle to Appomattox in mind-numbing detail. But Wheeler is anything but mired in the past. His grasp of the inner workings and nitty nuance of the Internet is impressive for a non-engineer. As he tells it, if you are going to invest other people’s money into something, you darn well better understand it better than anyone else. That is what he did as a venture capitalist, and that is what Wheeler has done as chairman of the FCC.
Sometimes wrong, but never in doubt, Wheeler is, by his own admission, not a humble man. And yet, like many of the mighty on the shores of the Potomac, he has been brought low by the ways of Washington. As a scion of two powerful industry trade associations, Wheeler is no stranger to working his will and getting his way. With an army of lawyers and publicists at his command, the erstwhile cable and wireless lobbyist influenced law, policy and regulation throughout the 1980s and 1990s.
Of course, his work back then was in the shadows — unseen and unknown by the public. To be sure, all the policy and political insiders knew Wheeler as a heavyweight. But for the 4 million or so Americans who ultimately weighed in on the FCC’s net-neutrality vote, Tom Wheeler was an unknown quantity. His introduction to the real world came in June 2014, when comedian John Oliver parodied Wheeler’s then-unpopular stance on net neutrality and mused whether Wheeler was a dingo in disguise.
FLIPPING ON NET NEUTRALITY
Like any leader with hindsight vision, Wheeler saw a popular parade and jumped out in front of it. He became a drum major for Internet justice and, as such, more Catholic than the pope in his liturgy on net neutrality. In fact, Wheeler’s astute perception of the changing winds of public opinion arguably softened his policy shift following Obama’s arm-twisting and public pronouncement.
But it was not without consequence or self-immolation. Whatever slings and arrows he had to face, Wheeler decided he would not go down on the wrong side of history — again. Thus, when Comcast came along, and the orchestrated opposition grew, Wheeler found a credible opportunity to erase the memory of what most saw as a forced “flip-flop” on net neutrality.
As a result, the decision — and Wheeler himself — will become larger than life, an outcome few would have predicted. To net-neutrality opponents, Wheeler is a free-market apostate, unworthy of the capitalist “C” he so proudly wears. But to many others, especially those in the American heartland, especially at The Ohio State University, chairman Wheeler will be known forever as the man who saved the Internet.
Even if he cannot lay legitimate claim to such a mantle, it is nonetheless a lofty epitaph for a black-hat lobbyist, venture capitalist, and apocryphal dingo. And for a wealthy Washington insider no longer driven by the pursuit of money or his next job, legacy can be a powerful motivator. If we have learned anything about him during this saga, it is this: Tom Wheeler knows full well that history belongs to those who write it.
Thus, he is compelled to shape the public narrative, not only for politics but also for posterity. As the intrepid liberator who stormed the ramparts of Internet injustice, Wheeler stared down the ISPs and powerful interests he once championed. He emerged bloodied, but unbowed, and stands triumphantly on the summit of Internet freedom, justice and equality. Or so he says.
Only time will tell whether this redemptive paean of regulatory prowess proves true. For Wheeler the historian, leading the battle for net neutrality will eclipse whatever else he has done in his long career — larger than startups, exits, IPOs, mergers, or the deals under his charge. It is a narrative he would like to wrest from the revanchists, revisionists and Republicans who are sure to spin a different story.
With characteristic baritone and bravado, Wheeler can now add to his legacy that he fought back a merger that was sure to hurt consumers in some (undefined) way or another. So for Comcast, it should come as small consolation that, unlike Michael Corleone, chairman Wheeler’s decision was personal, not business.
Adonis Hoffman is founder and chairman of Business in the Public Interest. He is the former chief of staff and senior legal adviser to FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn and an adjunct professor in Communication, Culture & Technology at Georgetown University.
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