FCC Chair To Trump Administration: Putting Industry’s Wants Over Public Interest Would Be A “Real Mistake”

This morning, the FCC was supposed to consider a number of items during its monthly open meeting, but yesterday afternoon the Commission suddenly deleted almost everything from the agenda, including matters related to expansion of wireless broadband networks, standardized roaming on wireless, competition in business data services, and requirements on accessibility to certain programming to visually impaired Americans. After today’s brief meeting, FCC Chair Tom Wheeler spoke publicly about why these items were removed, and indirectly called on President-elect Donald Trump’s incoming administration to put consumer protection before the desires of the telecom, pay-TV, and wireless industries.

Regarding the sudden deletion of items from the agenda, Wheeler explained that “Certain of my colleagues identified the items on today’s proposed agenda as controversial and asked that they not be considered today.”

“1.4 million Americans living in rural areas without LTE service will continue to be so deprived. They deserve better from this commission”

Though it’s possible that these matters may be taken up at a later date, Wheeler expressed concern about the millions of American consumers affected by this inaction.

“It is unfortunate that hospitals and small businesses in search of competitive alternatives will be denied that opportunity,” he told reporters. “They deserve better from this commission. It is truly disappointing that 1.4 million Americans living in rural areas without LTE service will continue to be so deprived. They deserve better from this commission. And it is tragic that 1.3 million Americans who are blind and millions more who are visually impaired will not be able to enjoy expanded video description. They deserve better from this commission.”

As for the “controversial” nature of the deleted agenda items, Wheeler argued that the only reason they are considered controversial is because “they are opposed principally by the largest incumbent firms in the sector.”

The Chair called on the incoming administration to put people first, explaining that “when so-called controversy is the result of choosing between the broader common good or those incumbents preferring the status quo, I believe the public interest should prevail.”

“Taking a fast, fair and open internet away from the public… would be a real mistake”

Wheeler — a former head of trade groups for both the wireless and cable/telecom industries — acknowledges that the new White House could try to roll back the major changes put in place by the current FCC, like net neutrality and internet privacy regulations, but that doing so could have “serious consequences.”

“I think it’s an important thing to remember that taking a fast, fair and open internet away from the public and away from those who use it to offer innovative new services to the public would be a real mistake,” explained the Chair, adding “that taking away network privacy that consumers enjoy as a result of our decision would be a real mistake; that taking away connecting everyone — whether you’re a school, a library, a low-income American, or a person in jail — taking that away would be a real mistake. Taking away the concept that the American economy works best when there is competition, competition, competition, would be a real mistake.”

“The 3-2 votes expanded services to schools, expanded broadband to low-income Americans… I’m surprised that those kinds of things are 3-2 votes”

Many of these high-profile regulations were narrowly passed by the FCC under Wheeler, and when he was asked if he’d rather that some of these votes had been 4-1 or unanimous to better preserve their status, the Chair appeared to get emotionally moved as he broke down the reasoning for why these votes went down the way they did.

“Governing is deciding, and you decide based on principles. There are plenty of opportunities to try to work out things, but when you start from a ‘no’ or a ‘I won’t even take this up,’ it’s hard to have any kind of a discussion,” he explained. “Let’s look back at those 3-2 votes. They created a fast, fair, and open internet that has expanded broadband penetration, that has expanded investment in services over the internet, that has expanded fiber, that has resulted in increased revenues for those being regulated. They resulted in privacy for Americans, so that the same thing they expect from their telephone they get when they go on the Web from their networks. The 3-2 votes expanded services to schools, expanded broadband to low-income Americans, provided that prisoners — for a 15-minute call with their kid — didn’t have to pay what you and I have to pay for a month’s worth of cellular service… I’m surprised that those kinds of things are 3-2 votes. I think that those kinds of things are important principles.”

As for what Americans can expect from an FCC under the next White House, Wheeler conceded, “I’m the last guy in the work to talk about what the Trump administration intends to do.”

Wheeler’s five-year term with the Commission is slated to continue to Nov. 2018, and he can’t easily be removed. However, the new administration will choose which of the five FCC commissioners to raise to the position of Chair, so if Wheeler remains on the panel beyond Jan. 2017, it would have to be as a commissioner, not as the head of the agency.

“I am committed to a smooth transition,” said Wheeler. “I have not decided on a departure date, but I will keep you posted.”