Tom Wheeler has made a career out of surprising people.
The 68-year-old chairman of the Federal Communications Commission is commonly called out as a former top lobbyist for the cable and wireless industry, a role he served for a quarter of century. Few remember his long career as an entrepreneur. Even fewer know it was one of his startups that informed his view of the Internet — before the World Wide Web was even invented — that’s now driving his approach to Internet regulation
In 1984, the then-38-year-old Wheeler took over NABU Network, which offered specially designed home computers that could access news, games and other applications through the cable television network. The National Museum of Science and Technology later described the network as the “Internet — 10 years ahead of its time.” A few blocks from NABU’s Alexandria, Va., office, 27-year-old Steve Case was working on a similar project that tapped into the telephone network, which Wheeler derided as inferior.
“We used to look down our noses at them because they were so slow,” Wheeler recalled in a half- hour-long interview last month.
But it was Case’s company, America Online, that became an Internet titan during the dot-com boom. NABU folded in 1985. The difference between the two approaches? Wheeler’s company relied on a closed network.
“Steve [Case] could build a national footprint immediately, and we had to go from cable operator to cable operator to ask permission to get on the network,” said Wheeler. “That is exactly the situation that entrepreneurs face today. If you can’t have open access to the Internet, innovation is thwarted and new services grind to a halt.”
“Chairman Wheeler is on the edge of making history by defying the greatest lobbyists in the world — from the telco and cable industry — to secure an open and fast Internet for all Americans.”
As head of the regulatory body that governs the Internet, Wheeler is taking those lessons learned and readying the biggest initiative of his career: introducing rules this week designed to ensure Internet service providers give equal access to content and applications — without blocking or forcing content providers to pay for faster delivery to their online customers.
The industry calls this notion “Net neutrality.”
Those in favor of the open Internet include consumer advocates, Internet companies such as Netflix, Reddit and Mozilla, and President Barack Obama, who declared in November no toll takers should stand between you and your favorite online sites and services. Critics of Net neutrality argue that too much regulation will stifle innovation by quashing investments in Internet networks and services.
Net neutrality advocates, initially wary of Wheeler because of his past association with the industries he regulates, now applaud his leadership. Reed Hastings, CEO of the Netflix video-streaming service, likens Wheeler’s stance to the one taken by business mogul Joseph Kennedy Sr. in 1934, when he was tasked with regulating Wall Street for the first time as chairman of the newly formed Securities and Exchange Commission.
“Chairman Wheeler is on the edge of making history by defying the greatest lobbyists in the world — from the telco and cable industry — to secure an open and fast Internet for all Americans,” Hastings said. “You have to go back to Joseph Kennedy Sr. running the SEC to find as surprising and courageous an example of policy leadership given the person’s prior background.”
The once-powerful advocate for the cable and wireless companies has rocked his former employers on their heels.
“The joke around Washington these days is that the only thing that can bring together cable, wireless and TV broadcasters is Tom Wheeler,” said a Washington communications lawyer, who represents some of Wheeler’s critics.
The FCC is set to propose its new rules on February 5. A vote by the agency is scheduled for February 26.