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The FCC's vocal minority speaks out

In an interview, Michael O'Rielly, one of the two Republicans on the Federal Communications Commission, weighs in on the politically divisive nature of the agency.

Michael O'Rielly, the newest commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission, is frustrated.

FCC Commissioner Michael O'Rielly visited the CNET offices to talk about telecom policy. CNET/Sarah Tew

O'Rielly, one of two Republicans on the five-person FCC, joined the agency in October 2013. And since then he has been in one battle after another with his Democratic colleagues. For the most part, he's lost.

"It takes time and effort to soldier on and make your arguments," he said in an interview in June. "I do the work you'd expect me to do. I read every item. I do my homework. And I make substantive suggestions. But I'm often shot down."

His frustration with the FCC underscores the contentious interaction among the commissioners, which make up one of the more politically divisive commissions in recent history. From hotbed issues such as Net neutrality, which touches on the regulation of Internet traffic, to expanding a program to provide broadband services to the poor, O'Rielly has been a vocal minority, railing against the initiatives with little effect.

"They [the FCC majority] know exactly what they want to do," he said. "It's either you can sign up for what we want to do or not, but we're going forward."

It should come as little surprise that the former Republican congressional staffer turned regulator would not agree with the Democratic majority on many issues. After all, the FCC is by design a partisan agency. By law, three out of the five commissioners serving at the agency can come from the same political party. The result is that the party that has control of the White House controls the commission. Today, that means the Democrats are at the wheel.

O'Rielly and his Republican colleague, Ajit Pai, have opposed all the major Democrat-supported issues that have passed, in large part due to philosophical differences they have with their colleagues across the political aisles on these issues. But O'Rielly said what has truly frustrated him is what he sees as an unwillingness by the FCC leadership to find consensus on any issue.

Personality conflicts

For months, O'Rielly and Pai have publicly expressed their frustration with how issues are being handled at the FCC. In February, the duo pressed Chairman Tom Wheeler's office to release a draft copy of the Net neutrality order before it was voted on. They argued that the public had not been given a chance to review what ultimately ended up in the proposal that was voted on. On several occasions, O'Rielly has also raised objections the handling of procedural issues, such as how the agency finalizes documents voted on at commission meetings.

At the FCC's June meeting, O'Rielly accused fellow commissioners of lying to him during discussions on a measure to crack down on robocalls and spam text messages. He declined to name the individuals who he claims lied to him.

"After 14 months working on this issue, it is clear that this process brought out a new low I have never seen in politics or policy making -- which is saying something," he said at the meeting. "Along the way, some of us were led to believe that we were working together to find a common resolution. Instead, we were being deceived in order to produce one of the most slanted documents I've ever seen."

He added that he would not be "so naive to trust again in certain people in leadership positions at the commission."

In an interview, he also conceded that he must work to repair his relationships with his colleagues, even if he felt the process was unfair.

"I was deceived in terms of believing that we were working to find a common resolution," he said. "Then it became apparent that, 'Nope, your views don't matter anymore and we really don't care if you vote with us anymore.'"

At a press conference following the June meeting, Wheeler said O'Rielly's comments concerned him, but he added he was hopeful that the relationship could be repaired.

"I'm always concerned if there are people that have worries about our interrelationships," Wheeler said. "I remember sitting on his couch and saying this is where we're going on robocalls. I'm sorry that he feels that way. I do believe strongly, however, in the healing aspects of dialogue and intend to engage in it."

No to Net neutrality

O'Rielly admitted there isn't much room for compromise on some of the more politically charged issues before the FCC. That includes Net neutrality, which governs the equal treatment of traffic traveling across the Internet. The divide on an issue such as that one goes to the heart of one's politics.

For instance, O'Rielly, unlike some Republicans in Congress who have proposed making some of the FCC's new rules law, not only opposes the most controversial aspect of the Net neutrality order, he opposes any rules, period.

"Generally, I'm of the mindset that until we have an identifiable problem that we're trying to address, we don't need any new rules," he said. "I think there are ramifications for having rules when you don't have a problem."

He added that he does not oppose the idea of Net neutrality. He just doesn't think there is a need to have formal rules in place to protect it.

"I'm for Internet openness," he said. "We're all for Internet openness. If you asked the American people, I think they support it. Internet companies, broadband companies are all in favor of it. So what is the problem we were trying to solve?"

There could be unintended consequences of the new rules that could stifle innovation and investment, he warned.

"We're prohibiting paid prioritization," he said. "But we have no experience right now to know if that's something that would have been beneficial."

The restrictive rules on the Internet could prevent advances such as self-driving cars and remote medical care from getting off the ground in the US, he said. Without any sort of network prioritization, these services may never see the light of day for consumers.

"We're prohibiting any type of fast lane, whether it's a good fast lane or a bad fast lane," he said. "We're just saying no fast lane."

Fearful of waste

Net neutrality is just one issue where his ideological views differ from those of his colleagues. He has also been openly critical of the FCC's plans to expand a subsidy program originally designed to help people pay for phone service to include payments for broadband service. In his remarks at the June meeting he accused Democrats of trying to spend as much money as possible without any "hint of restraint before a possible change in administration."

He said in an interview that he pushed his colleagues to adopt a budget to ensure the program, which has been rife with corruption, would not spiral out of control in terms of cost.

"There's been waste, fraud and abuse since this program's inception," he said. "That will be multiplied once it's expanded. All I am saying is let's have fiscal constraints put in place so it doesn't explode on us. And the answer was no."

Still, as frustrating as his job can be, O'Rielly said he will continue his work on the FCC. He was renominated for another term in November last year.

"I'm committed," he said. "I love the policy, the substance of the issues, and I love trying to work with my colleagues. I wish there was more receptivity to finding common ground. But I love the process."