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‘I don’t intend to go crawl under a rock’: An exit interview with FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Pete Marovich/Bloomberg News)

If you're familiar with the comedian John Oliver, then you may also remember the man he once memorably called a “dingo.” That's Tom Wheeler, the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission. Wheeler earned the nickname during a tense and historic policy battle over net neutrality, the rules telling Internet providers they can't discriminate against websites they don't like. Although Wheeler entered office with a reputation for supporting the cable and cellular industries — he was their top lobbyist in Washington in the 1980s and 1990s — under pressure from activists, he pushed an agenda that focused on disrupting old tech industries (“incumbents”) by helping new ones (“insurgents").

I reached Wheeler by phone in one of his last public interviews before leaving office Friday. The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity.

I thought I'd start by looking at a colorful moment from your tenure. You came out of your house one morning on your way to work and were blockaded by a number of net-neutrality activistsWhat was going through your head? And what did you do after going back inside your house?

Well, here, let me give you both the before and after. It was about 6 o'clock in the morning or so that I was leaving the house, and I just got in the car, and I start backing out, and the next thing I know, this Chevy, I think it was, comes screeching around the corner, the doors open, and people pile out! And if I had spent two minutes less in the shower, they would've missed me entirely. You know what was said, back and forth, on the tape. And then I went back into the house, then I walked out of the house and walked to the Metro because they weren't letting my car move.

Did you leave via a side door or something?

Nope, I walked right out the front door. I said, “See ya guys,” and walked right to the Metro. I think frankly it caught them quite by surprise.

What would you say were your biggest accomplishments and, by contrast, your biggest defeats or setbacks?

I'm really proud of what we did on net neutrality. I'm proud about what we did on privacy. I'm proud of what we did on cybersecurity. I'm proud of what we did on E-Rate. I'm proud of what we did on Lifeline. There are a lot of things I look back on with pride, and smile. I mean, we were the first to have spectrum for 5G in the world. We expanded the rural broadband program. I mean, I'm proud, when I look back on it.

I notice you didn't answer the second part of the question, there.

I wish we could've done set-top boxes. I wish we could've done business data services. But we ran out of runway.

I heard a story early on in your tenure that you'd held meetings with stakeholders, your first week in office. And when you laid out where you were coming from, all these people started realizing, “Oh, my gosh, the expectations I had of this guy coming in were very different from what I'm seeing now of this man.” Is that true, and can you describe your perspective of those meetings?

In the first week, I asked all the organizations and offices to come in and sit down. I made sure that the first groups to come in were those representing Americans with disabilities, because I wanted to be the disability chairman. You were asking what are the things I'm proud of? I'm proud of what we did to help technology be used to attack the challenges of individuals with disabilities. The first thing we did was the closed captioning rules. For 10 years — for 10 years! — there had been a petition here at the commission saying that closed captioning isn't keeping up with what's going on [on the screen]. It's too slow. And there are better technologies. And the commission had done nothing about it. It's the kind of thing that you or I, as hearing people, if the audio was out of sync as much, we would be raising holy hell. And I sat at that meeting and I said we're going to fix that.

But back to your question. Your question was —

— tell me how those meetings went with incumbent industries, because I've spoken to lawyers and lobbyists who early on in your tenure were sort of expecting you to behave a certain way. 

First of all, those people who expected me to act differently really didn't understand me. Because I've spent my entire professional life representing the insurgent against the incumbent. And when I was running companies, I was running companies that were coming up with technologies to challenge existing technologies. I have always been the insurgent versus the incumbent.

Some of your critics have accused you of heightening partisanship at the commission, writing rules in a way that they disproportionately benefit new entrants — insurgents, as you said — over incumbents, and I'm curious what your response to that is.

“Competition, competition, competition.” I thought that was a pretty conservative principle — that the key to markets is effective competition. And the job of an agency like ours is to make sure that that competition has an opportunity to exist. And so I'm kind of befuddled by how conservatives, of all people, walk away from the basic conservative concept of competition in order to try to pick and choose winners through policy decisions rather than letting the marketplace do that.

You're saying that policy decisions that allow the current system to persist, that that favors incumbents?

No. No, no, no, no, no, no. What I'm saying is, for instance — the effort that is now underway, much talked about, to repeal the open Internet, is something that will benefit six companies. And tens of thousands of companies and millions of consumers will be affected. And the question is: Why is it that “competition” doesn't mean that there can be [challengers to the established order]?

Your agency essentially ran out the clock on zero-rating with a paper criticizing AT&T and Verizon last week. But this is something that your commission has been looking at for about a year now. Why did the FCC wait so long to release that report and why didn't the FCC move to take an enforcement action of some kind, given the concerns that were raised there?

Good question. There developed these two new applications where zero-rating was being used for anti-competitive purposes, so we began an inquiry into that. Along the way, there was a little thing called an election. And the companies, as a result of the election, understood that they didn't have to pay attention to [the inquiry]. So yes, they wrote us responses. We asked specific questions. And yes, they sent us [paperwork] back, but they assiduously did NOT answer the questions. So we were going through the process, which includes developing a fact-based scenario, working with the affected companies, and the reality is, we ran out of runway.

What are you going to do now? Do you see yourself staying in tech policy?

I'm a network guy. I've spent the last 40 years of my life in new and evolving networks. I don't think the cat can change his stripes. I'm going to go to the Aspen Institute and decompress for about three months. I don't intend to go crawl under a rock someplace.