Wheeler: FCC Will Look 'Differently' At Sharing Arrangements

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Thursday suggested that his decision to scrap the overdue (2010) quadrennial media ownership rule review item circulated by former Chairman Julius Genachowski--it is now expected to be rolled into the 2014 review--was more than just a housekeeping exercise.

"One of the first things we did is to do away with the proposed rule change that eased the crossownership restriction so that companies could merge more," he told an applauding town hall meeting crowd in Oakland, Calif., in explaining what steps the FCC had taken to address consolidation.

He also signaled that joint sales and services agreements would be under the microscope.

"In an arcane way that only the lawyers would understand, but stay tuned, there were a couple of references in a couple of recent decisions in which we said we're going to do things differently going forward on these, what were called shell corporations up here in one of the presentations. (One of the town hall speakers had talked about shell corporations that drove up cable prices and allowed for more consolidation). We're going to look at that differently."

Along with the Department of Justice, the FCC conditioned approval of the Gannett-Belo sale on disallowing Belo from providing services to KMOV-TV after it spins it off to comply with local ownership rules, saying that would reduce competition for advertising dollars.

At the town hall meeting, which was sponsored by Voices for Internet Freedom, Wheeler got an earful, most of it respectful, on a host of issues, from media consolidation and the digital divide to prison phone rates. One voice during the open mike session criticized Wheeler as a former wireless trade association executive who must have known that wireless phones caused brain tumors. But for the most part the voices had stories about the lack of high speed broadband, issues of minority access to the media and access to broadband by the poor and minorities, delivered respectfully but with obvious passion.

Center for Media Justice Executive Director Malkia Cyril summed up the tone when she said that "there will be a time when we are outside, confronting power. Tonight we are here to share our stories so we can begin to see what can be done. It is easier to fight and yell and resist, even when it is hard, than having a vision of what needs to happen and working toward it.

Wheeler said that while the commission processes are open and anyone can provide comments on all the topics it discusses, "that's not enough." He pointed out proudly that he was in his third month in the job and had yet to make an appearance in Washington, D.C. Wheeler conceded he has been a typical Washington player, but his job now is to "learn by listening, take in data points of information and passion [he heard] tonight and say, 'OK, what are you going to do about it."

Wheeler thanked his audience and called it a learning experience. He put his pen where his mouth was, taking notes and even naming speakers and their issues during his portion of the proceedings, demonstrating that he had been taking it all in.

There were a number of voices for Internet freedom and openness at the town hall meeting, and Wheeler's was one of them. He said that the basic network values, what he has christened the "network compact"--openness, access, security, public safety--are not just going to go "poof" because "somebody has come up with a new technology for delivering those messages."

Wheeler said the challenge is to make sure that those values apply going forward in new network technologies. "I happen to think that is important for the growth of these new networks." He said he intended to make it clear to the builders of these new networks--of which he is a proponent--and say: "Folks, if you want incentives to grow the networks, then you've gotta make sure you uphold the compact. Because why in the world is anybody ever going to subscribe to your service if they can't make a 911 call? Why is somebody ever going to subscribe if preferential treatment is given to someone else? Why is somebody ever going to subscribe if they can't interconnect with other networks, or if there isn't access, both to the network and also in getting on the network?"

By the time wheeler was done, he was "Brother Wheeler" to the applause of the assembled group. But he was also presented with a parting gift: A box containing what were said to be thousands of petitions asking for full commission field hearings "in communities across the country."

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.