Net Neutrality Debate Forces FCC Chairman Into The Spotlight
LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:
The FCC is a small agency with a big impact on our daily lives. Just a few things it's considering these days - how to regulate the Internet, whether to allow people use cell phones while flying and whether to let Comcast take over Time Warner Cable. As NPR's Brian Naylor reports, all of this puts pressure on the agency's chairman, former cable TV lobbyist Tom Wheeler.
BRIAN NAYLOR, BYLINE: When Tom Wheeler agreed to Pres. Obama's request to lead the FCC, it's doubtful he imagined mornings like the one last November.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: Which side are you on, Tom?
TOM WHEELER: I'm on your side. (Unintelligible).
UNIDENTIFIED MAN: (Unintelligible) Which side are you on?
NAYLOR: A small group of activists blocked the driveway of his Georgetown townhouse, holding a banner that said save the Internet. Wheeler tried to engage the group, but eventually gave up and took public transportation to work. The activists want the FCC to regulate the Internet like a public utility, such as the phone company. That's what Pres. Obama wants, too. Big media companies, on the other hand, such as Netflix and Amazon, want to be able to cut deals with other big companies, like Comcast and Verizon, to ensure their content gets priority. Wheeler is trying to strike that balance. Here he is in a speech to the Minority Media and Telecommunications Counsel last year.
(SOUNDBITE OF SPEECH)
WHEELER: Never in the life of anyone in this room has there been greater opportunity to exploit the new networks for ownership diversity and content diversity. And that's what makes the open Internet so damn important.
NAYLOR: The net neutrality debate has certainly made Wheeler more of a public figure that many of his predecessor FCC chairs. Wheeler previously headed both the National Cable Television Association and the Cellular Telecommunications and Internet Association. That led HBO's John Oliver to say putting Wheeler in charge of the agency that regulates those industries was akin to having a dingo watch your baby, to which Wheeler responded...
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "LAST WEEK TONIGHT")
WHEELER: I would like to state for the record that I'm not a dingo.
NAYLOR: Former FCC Commissioner Robert McDowell...
ROBERT MCDOWELL: There's a tremendous amount of pressure applied to the FCC from many different quarters. It could be the public. It could be Congress. It could be the media. It could be think tanks and various pressure groups from both the left and the right.
NAYLOR: McDowell, who dealt with Wheeler before he became FCC chair, says the pressure doesn't phase Wheeler.
MCDOWELL: Tom Wheeler is a very strong-willed individual. He has a clear vision of where he wants to go. And he will pursue that vision vigorously, much to the consternation of his opponents and adversaries.
NAYLOR: Net neutrality is not the only issue facing Wheeler and the FCC. In December, the commission approved a plan he backed to help more schools and libraries afford high-speed Internet connections by raising fees on Americans' phone bills. And there are the contentious issues of cell phones on planes and the merger of the big cable companies. Nicole Turner-Lee is vice president of the Minority Media and Telecommunications Council.
NICOLE TURNER-LEE: I think he's got a full plate with a lot of entrees that he has to sort of sort through.
NAYLOR: Turner-Lee has met with Wheeler on the net neutrality issue and hopes he'll allow an open Internet that does not give preferential treatment to big media companies while increasing access to minority communities.
TURNER-LEE: He listened to us the same as he listened to the protesters that were sitting on his lawn. I think we're dealing with a chairman that gets this.
NAYLOR: And reaching that balance between industries, special interest groups and consumers may be Wheeler's biggest challenge. Brian Naylor, NPR News.
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Correction Jan. 2, 2015
We incorrectly characterize the position of Netflix and Amazon on the issue of net neutrality. Netflix and Amazon do not support paid prioritization and have previously registered their opposition with the FCC.