FCC chair Wheeler says it's time to cowboy up

13 January 2014 by Steve Blum
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Be careful where the bull throws you.

“This is not my first rodeo. I played in the formulating of the rules for the very first spectrum auction”, said FCC chair Tom Wheeler, at CES last week. “I went around with my hair on fire talking about the end of western civilisation if they don’t do it my way”.

Wheeler was CEO of the National Cable Television Association from 1979 to 1984 and of the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) from 1992 to 2004, the Washington DC-based national trade associations for the cable television and mobile phone industries. Adding time served in less lofty positions, he spent 20 years of his career lobbying on behalf of telecoms companies.

During a collegial, hour-long conversation with Gary Shapiro, the CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (and, thereby, also a major league lobbyist), Wheeler talked up his Beltway credentials as something that gives him an edge in his new job.

He said one of his first tasks was to call up the man who replaced him at CTIA, Steve Largent, and tell him that if carriers didn’t come up with a consumer friendly policy for unlocking mobile phones, the FCC would. The result was a letter from Largent that said the five biggest mobile companies in the U.S. were doing just that.

The danger, though, is that Wheeler sees telecoms policymaking and – crucially – enforcement as primarily a process of building consensus amongst Washington lobbyists. He sees the FCC as more a referee than a rule maker when it comes to network neutrality issues, for example. Given the partisan rancor in Washington, that’s a workable approach, if he doesn’t limit the game to veteran players. That’s expecting a lot from a former star lobbyist.