Wheeler Meets with Public Interest Groups

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Tuesday met with public interest groups to talk about his agency plans, according to some of those public interest groups, and included his pledge of support for an open Internet and hit on other general themes.

It was described by attendee Harold Feld of Public Knowledge as a good, frank discussion but long on high-level generality and short on specifics.

Those generalities included his pitch for a "Fourth Network Revolution" to transition traditional circuit-switched telephony to IP delivery and his push for unlocking consumer handsets — he has asked CTIA: The Wireless Association and its members to voluntarily allow unlocking or face possible regulation, generally positions he has already made clear.

But, according to Feld, Wheeler he did say he recognized that the FCC needs to collect more data to know what was going on in the industry, in particular with regard to minority ownership, said one attendee. He said that was something the agency needed to focus on. He said he wanted to make sure of diversity not only in the media context, but in the IP transition to insure that the minority communities are not passed by.

"We welcome Mr. Wheeler to the FCC and stand ready to support him in the tough policy decisions he will have to make to ensure that consumers have numerous choices of telecommunications providers and the Internet remains open and affordable for every community," said Sascha Meinrath, director of the Open Technology Institute and VP of the New America Foundation. Meinrath had been a fairly harsh public critic of the Wheeler appointment, so his presence and positive takeaway are meaningful, said Feld.

Others present included representatives of Free Press, Consumers Union, the Consumer Federation of America, the Minority Media & Telecommunications Council, The Leadership Council on Civil Rights, the United Church of Christ, NAACP and several others.

To insure such a line of communications with those and other groups, Wheeler named Gigi Sohn, former president of public interest group Public Knowledge, to be his special counsel for external affairs. She was also there, as were other top Wheeler staffers, but on the FCC side only the chairman spoke, according to Feld.

Feld called it a meet and greet and high-level briefing, likening it to compulsories in figure skating, "where you are graded on not screwing up. Wheeler has gone through his compulsories, and I would say he has done a good job of not screwing up."

Both acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn and former Chairman Julius Genachowski had similar meetings, Feld notes. He also pointed out that Wheeler said he was planning to meet with trade association representatives the same day.

According to Feld, Wheeler acknowledged that there were some in the group who were doubtful of his credentials as a regulator who would put consumers first — he is a former lobbyist for the cable and wireless industries. But he said it was important for him to recognize that competition sometime requires regulation to promote it.

Wheeler said he remembered when he had been on the opposite side of the desk from the chairman trying to make his case. He said he was interested in pragmatic results, signaled that his approach [which could be christened the "angels of their better nature approach"] would be to try and get industry to move voluntarily but recognizing that that "was not always going to happen."

Several of the public interest group representatives brought up key issues they want the FCC to be mindful of, including diversity, a request that Wheeler get out of Washington more often, and, for Feld's part, concerns about making data more available, particularly on mergers.

He said there was no talk about specific proceedings. "It was a good conversation in the sense that nothing bad happened, but nothing earth-shattering," he said.

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.