Expert Commentary

Tom Wheeler: The former head of the FCC shares his thoughts on net neutrality

Tom Wheeler discusses the U.S. Senate vote to preserve net neutrality.

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On May 16, 2018, in a 52-47 vote, the U.S. Senate passed a resolution to preserve regulations requiring internet service providers to treat all data equally, a concept known as net neutrality.

This was happy news for Tom Wheeler, a former cable industry and wireless telecom industry lobbyist who served under President Barack Obama as chairman of the Federal Communications Commission from 2013 to 2017.  After considering rules that could allow broadband companies to provide faster delivery to streaming video providers on a case-by-case basis, the FCC in 2015 passed the Open Internet Order, strongly supporting net neutrality.

When President Donald Trump took office in January 2017, he appointed Ajit Pai, a longtime critic of net neutrality, as the new chairman of the FCC. In December 2017, Pai’s FCC voted to overturn net neutrality.  Although the Senate voted to overturn Pai’s decision, the resolution would still need to pass the U.S. House of Representatives to be enacted.  That’s not likely;  there’s a significant Republican majority in the House: 235 Republicans and 193 Democrats.

But Wheeler is encouraged that three Republican senators crossed party lines to vote in favor of an open internet:  Susan M. Collins of Maine, John Kennedy of Louisiana and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska.  “They understood that this is important for the economy and for innovators,” he said.

Wheeler spent the past academic year at Harvard as a Walter Shorenstein Media and Democracy Fellow, conducting research on “the intersection of public policy and transformational technology.”  On the day of the Senate’s historic vote, he sat down with Journalist’s Resource for a quick conversation about net neutrality.

Here are some excerpts of his comments:

His thoughts on the Senate vote:

“What was significant was that it was bipartisan.  Remember that the Republicans control the Senate. So this issue, which has historically been Democrats on one side and Republicans on another, today became a bipartisan issue. Now it has to go to the House, and it’ll be much more difficult in the House.  But the fact that it has now become a bipartisan issue is very significant in that debate.”

How he explains net neutrality to a lay audience: 

“The reality is that four companies — Verizon, Comcast, AT&T and Charter — control 72 percent of all the homes in America for broadband. And 75 percent of all the homes in America have only one choice, at most, as to where they get internet service. If you don’t like your Ford, you can get a Chevy. But if you don’t like your Comcast service, you’re out of luck. And that kind of monopoly allows companies to be able to set the terms and conditions that benefit them. It is the exact situation that exists today with cable television.

“So the real issue here is this: Are we going to allow the internet to be cable-ized? Because what happens with cable is the cable operator determines what you can see; it determines what tiers you have to buy in order to see your favorite program; it tells you what you have to buy even though you aren’t going to watch it; and it tells you that you have to pay them ten dollars a month for a set-top box that you don’t need, which they can do because they’re a monopoly, and you have no choice.

“An open internet gives the consumers choices over where they want to go on the internet and gives those who are creative innovative services open access to any consumer without a gatekeeper. And the goal of the four powerful companies is to become a gatekeeper so that   they can discriminate and charge you more or charge the internet service more.

“And what the net neutrality rule does is to say no, you can’t do that. Everyone has to have open access [to the internet].”

How his own stance on net neutrality has evolved:

“I was always for net neutrality. The question was the best way to do it. My initial proposal was that we follow what I thought the court was telling us to do after they overturned the Genachowki Commission’s decision in the Verizon case. But I also asked the question, should we have Title II — should we have common-carrier status? … And the only way to do it, and to have enforceable nondiscrimination, was by making the internet service providers common carriers.”

Editor’s note:  In 2014, a federal appeals court struck down net neutrality rules enacted by the FCC in 2010 under former Chairman Julius Genachowski. The court argued that previously-enacted rules prohibited the FCC from treating internet service providers as “common carriers.” Wheeler’s FCC broadened its regulatory powers by reclassifying broadband internet providers as “common carriers” – companies that offer communications services to the general public, the same category as traditional telecom providers — under Title II of the Communications Act of 1934. The 2015 decision to pass net neutrality also cited Section 706 of the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

What’s one question journalists should be asking about net neutrality?

“How can you possibly be against this?”

For a historical overview of academic research on net neutrality, check out our piece, “The net neutrality debate and underlying dynamics: Research perspectives.”

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