Tom Wheeler: The open internet's unlikely defender

When the former lobbyist took the reins at the FCC, consumer advocates worried his industry ties spelled trouble. Three years later, they see him as a champion for consumers.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
5 min read

Tom Wheeler wasn't expected to be a hero of the open internet. But that's how the outgoing FCC chairman will be remembered when he leaves his office in January.

In 2015, Wheeler, a telecom-lobbyist-turned-regulator, pushed through a set of sweeping net neutrality rules that reclassified internet service providers as public utilities. He's also protected consumer privacy by championing stringent regulations, enhanced affordable broadband for low-income families and advocated for competition.

"Rather than be the lapdog of industry some feared (or hoped for), Tom Wheeler proved himself to be the most ferocious watchdog for consumers and competition in nearly two decades," Harold Feld, senior vice president for Public Knowledge, said in statement.

Last week, Wheeler, 70, gave notice that he will step down on January 20, when President-elect Donald Trump takes office. Fellow Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel, who wasn't reconfirmed, will leave when her term ends on December 31.

When the dust settles, the agency will have a 2-1 Republican majority, putting Wheeler's legacy in jeopardy. Trump has made clear he's no fan of regulation, and his FCC transition team is headed by opponents of net neutrality . Sitting Republican commissioners Ajit Pai and Michael O'Rielly opposed Wheeler's agenda as chairman. They will likely move to undo many of his reforms.

The lobbyist

Even in a town known for revolving doors between government and industry, Wheeler's 2013 nomination as chairman of the FCC raised eyebrows among consumer advocates. His ties to the industry were long; at points he ran the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, now called NCTA - The Internet and Television Association, and the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association, known today as the CTIA.

He was also a hard-working supporter of Barack Obama , raising hundreds of thousands of dollars for his campaigns in 2008 and 2012.

Public interest critics portrayed Wheeler as a shill for the telecommunications industry. The controversy over his appointment was so fierce it propelled Wheeler into national celebrity.

In June 2014, comedian John Oliver compared the former lobbyist's appointment to asking a "dingo to babysit a baby." His 13-minute comedic treatment has been viewed more than 12 million times on YouTube and helped make net neutrality a topic of national discussion.

Net neutrality superhero

Still, the lanky, 6-foot 4-inch Ohio native was an unlikely champion of strict open internet rules.

The dispute over net neutrality erupted early in Wheeler's tenure at the agency when a federal appeals court threw out the FCC's 2010 Open Internet rules. A pragmatist, his first instinct was to re-establish rules agreed to by the previous FCC -- rules that never explicitly prohibited providers from offering paid-priority services.

But when his initial proposal was leaked to the public, the backlash was immediate and intense. Consumer advocates panned it, fearing it might allow broadband providers, like cable operators, to create "fast lanes" for content companies willing to pay a premium for faster access to their customers.

Protesters not only picketed the FCC office in Washington, they camped outside Wheeler's home in nearby Georgetown. Oliver's rant led to the FCC being flooded with nearly 4 million public comments. Wheeler took notice and revised his proposal.

People who know Wheeler say the regulator's stints as an entrepreneur and venture capitalist made him sympathetic to the underdog rather than the market power.

"I know Tom as a David strategizing how to fight the Goliaths, and not as the Goliath looking to crush the Davids," Noah Glass, founder and CEO of Olo, a company in which Wheeler invested, told CNET in 2015.

Republicans and industry groups claimed that interference by Obama, who penned an 1,100-word statement and posted a two-minute video urging the FCC to reclassify internet service as a public utility, prompted the about-face.

After the rules were adopted in February 2105, the cable industry, along with AT&T, filed suit against the agency, arguing that the FCC had overreached in reclassifying broadband, but an appeals court upheld the move the following year.

That cemented Wheeler's reputation, and won him praise from internet companies like Google and Netflix.

"Wheeler didn't come into this job as a net neutrality champion," Craig Aaron, CEO and president of the public interest group Free Press, said in a statement. "But he will be remembered first and foremost for his leadership on that crucial issue."

Beyond net neutrality

Net neutrality wasn't the only issue championed by Wheeler during his three-year chairmanship at the FCC. He pushed new rules to put stricter privacy regulations in place for broadband and wireless providers. He was also behind a failed attempt to spur competition in the cable TV set-top box market.

Wheeler also pushed through reforms to expand the FCC's Lifeline program to help millions of low-income people afford broadband internet access. Consumer groups praised the move for helping close the nation's digital divide, while Republicans on the FCC and in Congress opposed the measure, saying it was too costly.

Wheeler's FCC also blocked Comcast's proposed $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable, saying it would threaten competition and innovation.

"Few leaders at the FCC have known how better to expand horizons by promoting competition in the telecommunications marketplace than Tom Wheeler," Sen. Edward J. Markey, a Massachusetts Democrat, said in a statement. "[He] has led the FCC and our nation through an important pro-consumer, pro-competition era."

A legacy in jeopardy

It's almost certain the Trump administration's FCC will unwind net neutrality, as well as other reforms Wheeler championed. The three people leading Trump's FCC transition -- Roslyn Layton, Jeffrey Eisenach and Mark Jamison -- are all affiliated with the conservative American Enterprise Institute and argued against the existing rules. The agency's two Republican commissioners have made no secret they plan to reverse the FCC's classification of broadband, which was used to justify the agency's net neutrality rules.

Dismantling net neutrality would be good news for broadband and wireless companies, but internet companies, which fought for the regulation, will likely see this as a setback.

In his last FCC meeting as chairman, Wheeler struck an optimistic tone about the partisan divides that might threaten his legacy.

"The headlines got built around our differences," he said. "But the facts are that we accomplished a lot."