In announcing his campaign for president in 2007, then-Sen. Barack Obama spoke convincingly about how “lobbyists” and “special interests” have “turned our government into a game only they can afford to play.” He promised to close the revolving door that brings major industry players into positions in government that regulate those industries.
But now, Obama has nominated the former chief lobbyist for both the wireless and cable industries, Tom Wheeler, to lead the Federal Communications Commission. The fact that Wheeler was a major campaign fundraiser for the president’s reelection only makes the nomination all the more troubling.
The United States needs a strong advocate for the public interest to head the FCC. For the average consumer, service options are all too limited; Horrendous customer service and weak consumer protections have become the norm throughout the telecom industry. Rural America is being left out of the 21st-century economy — a recent OECD study showed that the United States comes in 14th place for overall nationwide broadband penetration.
We also lag in broadband speeds: Estonia is faster, and we pay more for Internet access than Sweden. In the country that pioneered the Internet, millions of Americans continue to lack access to this critical infrastructure. For minority communities, the lack of affordable access to and representation in media are major obstacles to full participation in many facets of our society.
The American consumer needs an FCC chairman who will champion significant and meaningful reforms: promote universal access to affordable and quality broadband; restore robust competition in telecom services; encourage open Internet rules and, open wireless platforms, and unlocked mobile devices. These are all commitments Obama made and the general public supports but industry opposes — which is all the more reason why nominating a chief lobbyist from the industry doesn’t make sense.
The FCC chairman will need to take on industry giants and make hard decisions to restore American competitiveness. The lack of fundamental protections for free speech, privacy and data security online are major issues that the FCC chairman needs to address. An industry insider who made a fortune lobbying on behalf of telecom companies won’t be looking out for the best interests of consumers.
Senators weighing a vote on Wheeler should take note of the cozy reception his nomination is getting among the industry he is supposed to regulate. The fact that AT&T called Wheeler “an inspired pick” and that Comcast weighed in to “applaud President Obama’s nomination” speaks volumes. Wheeler was inducted into the hall of fame for both the wireless and cable industries for a reason — he is big industry’s poster child. It is incredibly difficult to believe Mr. Wheeler will be able to hold his former clients accountable for their ongoing shortcomings.
The Senate has a chance to use the upcoming confirmation process to get strong commitments from Wheeler on his approach to reform and government oversight. The new FCC chairman should commit to working with civil society organizations and to restoring balance to an industry sector that is regularly rated as one of the worst in the country in terms of customer satisfaction. If Wheeler does not make concrete commitments guaranteeing meaningful reforms, the Senate should vote him down.
As more than 40 public interest organizations and companies wrote in our letter to the White House, after four years of stagnation at the FCC, we expect the Obama administration to put this important regulatory entity back on course. Mr. President, you had it right once. Our government cannot and should not be a game that only special interests and their lobbyists can afford to play. We need a voice for consumers and real oversight over the industries we depend on. Don’t sell our FCC to the industry it is supposed to oversee.