Here’s Exactly How the Internet Is Now Under Threat
Obama’s FCC head Tom Wheeler talks candidly about the open internet — and why, in Trumpworld, four companies could lock it up.
By Susan Crawford
Feb 2 2017
When President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler as the 31st chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), some activists were wary because of his background as an advocate for cable and wireless interests. But as a friend of his, I was confident that he would be a strong leader, and he did not disappoint me. In fact, I consider Tom Wheeler the most consequential FCC chairman since the early 1960s, when a 35-year-old Newton Minow went to the Sheraton Park Hotel — to the lion’s den, the National Association of Broadcasters — and told those all-powerful broadcasters that they were supposed to be serving the public interest. For all the diversity of content that we have today, one can argue that in terms of concentrated power over communications, we’re not much different — four companies strive to dominate what we see and hear. As commissioner, Tom Wheeler told those four companies that they should be serving the public interest as well.
On January 26th, I interviewed Wheeler at Harvard Law School, where I teach. It was the day the new administration announced his successor, who will have very different priorities. We talked about net neutrality, telecom mergers, high-speed access, and the dangers that lie ahead under the next administration. Below is an edited transcript of that conversation. You can see the entire interview here.
Susan Crawford: What’s it like to be the FCC chairman, then to walk out and no longer be the chairman? What does that feel like?
Tom Wheeler: First of all, you get a long time. You get 77 days to work up to it. So it’s not a big surprise. You walk away with just an incredible gratitude that at a time of such incredible change in how Americans communicate, you got to be the guy who sat there and dealt with how Americans relate to those changes.
Because the people who say the problem is government are so wrong — the government is the people. It’s where we come together to solve our common problems. It is a messy process, and it’s a painful process, but if we can’t work things out there, we’re in a whole hell of a lot of trouble.
You said recently, “Those who build and operate networks have both the incentive and the ability to use the power of the network to benefit themselves, even if doing so harms their own customers and the greater public interest.” We’re hearing from the Trump administration that they’re looking forward to getting rid of 75 percent of regulations. Their idea is that regulations inevitably dampen innovation and investment.
I made the same argument when I was an advocate. Let me tell you a story. I was CEO of the Wireless Industry Association and I was proud of the job that I did. But the least proud moment of my public policy life was when I opposed the commission’s efforts to allow people to take their phone numbers with them when they switched from, say, AT&T to T-Mobile. [When arguing against this policy,] I couldn’t go out and say, “We think it’s a really bad idea because in the current situation consumers are trapped with their carrier and can’t leave us without giving up their phone numbers.” That’s not a real winner. So the argument I made was, “This is going to take money that should be spent on infrastructure and expanding connectivity.”
I regret that argument. Saying, “It is going to slow down our incentive to invest,” is everybody’s first line of defense. It’s balderdash. The reason you invest is to get a return. Companies don’t say, “Well, I’m not going to invest because I might trigger some regulations.” Their question is: “Am I going to make a return off of this?” Broadband is a high-margin operation. You can make a return off of it.
The facts speak for themselves. Since the Open Internet rule was put in place, broadband investment is up, fiber connections are up, usage of broadband is up, investment in companies that use broadband is up, and revenues in the broadband providers are up, because people are using it more.
As a student of the Civil War, you remember that one of the big prizes of 1863 was Chattanooga: railroad hub, three railroad lines, two big rivers, two mountain ranges. What role did Chattanooga play in your tenure?
My good friend, Susan Crawford, said to me when I took this job that I should bear three things in mind. I kept these three things in a list on my desk. The first was to return to the regulatory ideal — that there is a legitimate role for regulation to benefit the broad scope of the population. The second was that we should have a legitimate credible definition of what broadband is, because broadband used to be defined as four megabits a second. That’s hardly broadband. The third was to tackle an outrageous practice that the internet service providers, the telephone companies, the cable companies, were doing — they were getting state legislatures to pass laws that prohibited cities in that state from building their own broadband network to compete with. I thought, “Hey, if the people through their local government decide they don’t like the quality of service that they’re getting, they ought to be able to organize through their government and say, ‘I want something better including the government building it.’”
[That’s where Chattanooga comes in.] It was the [classic] case study, a Tennessee law [that stopped that city, and every other one in the state, from expanding its municipal network]. So we sued Tennessee and North Carolina, making the argument that this was an overreach of the states’ authority. Unfortunately, the Sixth Circuit disagreed with us.
The great thing is all the hubbub about this woke up an awful lot of cities, and there is more activity to build competitive broadband at municipal levels than there ever has been. You know what happens when cities build? What happens is when they decide to build, the cable company decides to go faster and expand their service. I love this thing called competition.