Tom Wheeler: ISPs Wanted Internet Oversight to Get 'Lost' at FTC

Tom Wheeler
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Former FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said ISPs pushed for reclassification of internet access as a Title I service so that authority over their service could get put in the FTC and "lost" among all that agency's other responsibilities, which is what he said the Trump Administration ended up doing.

Wheeler, currently a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution, has argued for creating a new expert agency, separate from the FTC or FCC, to oversee digital platforms. 

Also Read: Tom Wheeler to Hill: 1 Gig Needed to Bridge Digital Chasm

As FCC chairman, Wheeler focused on ISPs, saying he did not have authority over platforms. But he also did not use his bully pulpit to raise red flags about the power platforms like Google and Facebook wielded, instead focusing on ISPs as the snakes in the virtuous platform garden.

Wheeler, who was being interviewed for C-SPAN's Communicators series, was asked why the U.S. needed a new agency. He said the current rules were built around industrial concepts that don't apply and it is time for a "new regulatory paradigm" that provides for both more agile regulation, which tech companies have asked for, while still protecting competition and consumers. 

He said the best way to do that was to start with a clean slate with a new set of expectations and procedures.

Asked whether the FCC could handle digital issues, Wheeler said that the reason he didn't do anything about digital economy issues during his tenure atop the FCC was that while the commission had authority over networks it did not have authority over the content delivered over those networks.

Wheeler said the reality is that the network (IP delivery) and the application are now both zeros and ones, and that what should be focused on is the impact of both, not getting lost in the zeros and ones.

Wheeler suggested that the $40 billion the FCC has spent in subsidies for broadband in high-cost areas over the past decade was invested in "building for yesterday's needs rather than tomorrow's realities," something he said frustrated him while he was at the agency. He said those subsidy programs, thus far, have failed. Instead, he said, a one-time $80 billion should be spent to fiber the country. 

President Joe Biden this week announced that broadband subsidy money in his massive infrastructure bill would go toward building future-proof broadband, so he is clearly reading from the same page as Wheeler.

Wheeler put in a plug for the return of Title II net neutrality rules--ISPs have argued that that would be re-applying last century's common carrier regs to today's realities.

But he did not put in a plug for current acting FCC Chairwoman Jessica Rosenworcel to get the permanent nod. Asked who he thought President Biden should name, he suggested it should be someone like him with management experience, since the chair is basically the agency CEO. Rosenworcel's experience is in policy as a top Hill and FCC staffer before being named to the commission.

Also Read: Pressure Builds to Name Permanent FCC Chair

There was some friction between Wheeler and Rosenworcel toward the end of his chairmanship, according to multiple sources, after Rosenworcel took a different view on how the FCC should craft set-top box rules to promote more video competition.

Wheeler declined to recommend anyone, saying it was a decision Biden was capable of making on his own. He did say he hoped he would pick someone with "experience in the field and strong leadership." 

The Wheeler episode of Communicators airs on C-SPAN Saturday, April 3, at 6:30 p.m. ET and Monday, April 5, on C-SPAN2 at 8 a.m. and 8 p.m. ET.

John Eggerton

Contributing editor John Eggerton has been an editor and/or writer on media regulation, legislation and policy for over four decades, including covering the FCC, FTC, Congress, the major media trade associations, and the federal courts. In addition to Multichannel News and Broadcasting + Cable, his work has appeared in Radio World, TV Technology, TV Fax, This Week in Consumer Electronics, Variety and the Encyclopedia Britannica.