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Broadband everywhere, for everyone? Tom Wheeler on President-elect Biden's telecom ambitions

Joe Biden is well on his way to taking over leadership of the US government's executive branch.

This week Biden named the members of his FCC transition team. The team includes former officials from the FCC and NTIA, Congressional aides, and former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn, a leading candidate to chair Biden's FCC.

While we won't know what Biden will actually do until he's inaugurated, we can discuss what Biden is likely to do with an industry insider who also served in the Obama administration.

Tom Wheeler was the chairman of the FCC during Biden's tenure as vice president, heading up the agency's efforts to craft net neutrality guidelines (guidelines that were promptly mothballed by Trump's FCC). Before that, Wheeler headed the trade associations for both the wireless and cable industries.

Wheeler is now a visiting fellow at the Brookings Institution and a senior fellow at Harvard Kennedy School. He's not here for our parlor games but he is here to talk about the incoming president and what the industry might expect during the next four years.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

Wheeler (Source: Brookings Institution)
Wheeler
(Source: Brookings Institution)

Light Reading: What are your overall expectations from President Biden in relation to the telecom industry?

Wheeler: I think that we're going to see a return to governing instead of de-governing.

The approach of the Trump FCC has been to walk away from their responsibility to protect the public interest in the networks that they regulate. Somebody once said: To err is human, to forgive there's deregulation.

There's an important thing that I hope will be recognized by the industry, and that is that the absence of oversight is not stability. You need to have basic rules, so everybody knows how the game is played. Walking away from oversight creates instability, instability that is filled by state governments, instability that is filled by foreign governments, instability where companies don't know what the rules are on which to make investment decisions.

Hopefully we're going to move from the era of, let's have policy by Tweet, and return to fact-based stability and expectations.

Light Reading: Who will lead the Biden FCC?

Wheeler: You know, it's one of the great parlor games in Washington. Everybody talks about it, but what actually happens is defined by forces beyond anyone's control.

Light Reading: Former FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn and current FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel have been rumored to be under consideration by Biden to chair the FCC. Who else might be under consideration, and who do you think Biden might pick?

Wheeler: I'm not going to play in the parlor game.

Light Reading: What do you think the Biden FCC might do about net neutrality?

Wheeler: President-elect Biden, during his campaign, did say he was in favor of Title II-based net neutrality. I'll take him at his word.

Light Reading: What about universal broadband and the digital divide? How do you expect a President Biden to address those kinds of issues?

Wheeler: The five existential issues that confront the Biden transition are: the pandemic, the economy, social injustice, climate change, and the hollowing out of government that has occurred in the last four years. When I was doing the Obama transition, we had one existential issue, which was the economy and the Great Recession. And we saw everything through that. Now they've got five existential issues. The thing that is important about broadband is that it hits every single one of those existential issues.

So I think we need to have broadband not just everywhere, which is going to cost about $80 billion, but also for everyone, which is something Trump conveniently overlooked.

You know, one of the most appalling things about the last four years has been leadership saying the digital divide is our No. 1 priority, and then proceeding to deal only with red-state rural connectivity and to ignore the lack of connectivity for low-income Americans living in blue, urban areas – even though there are three times as many low-income Americans without the Internet than there are rural Americans without the Internet.

Hopefully, we will now see an administration coming in and saying broadband everywhere and broadband for everyone.

Light Reading: Do you think Congress will have an interest in funding that kind of a proposal?

Wheeler: The head-scratcher on that question is: Why aren't the ISPs actively lobbying for it, particularly with the Republicans who have been sitting on it in the Senate? Why aren't they talking to their Republican friends? Because who's going to be the beneficiary of being able to bill monthly services to unserved rural areas? The ISPs. Who is going to be the beneficiary of being able to have subsidized service for low-income Americans? The ISPs.

This is a crazy business proposition for them. And I'm just amazed that they have not been talking to their Republican friends and saying, this is good for the country and good for us, to do it.

Light Reading: The US Department of Defense has a new proposal around 5G and spectrum sharing. What do you think will happen with this under a President Biden?

Wheeler: I'm only speaking personally, I can't speak for President Biden. But I think sharing is good, and destabilizing the traditional spectrum allocation process is bad.

Let's go back to what we did in the creation of CBRS, because CBRS is spectrum allocated to the Defense Department on a sharing basis. And we were able to work that out. That was lengthy negotiations with the DoD. And it looks like it has been successful.

What we're seeing now at the Defense Department is the consequence of having no spectrum policy. When we were dealing with the Defense Department on CBRS, there was a spectrum policy that had been established by the Commander-in-chief that said, you will make spectrum available. There has been no spectrum policy established by the Trump administration.

Light Reading: Let's talk about the US-China trade war in general and Huawei specifically. What do you expect to happen on these broad topics in the future?

Wheeler: The Obama administration went to all the wireless carriers and said, please don't use Huawei. Trump made it a big deal and pounded his chest about it. But he was only repeating what the Obama administration had already said to the carriers, and all the major carriers agreed not to use Huawei.

Unfortunately, a handful of smaller carriers chose their own economic interests over the national interest. But I think that that issue is clear: The Obama administration urged against the use of Huawei, for some clear-cut and obvious reasons.

Light Reading: And so a President Biden would continue along this course?

Wheeler: I can't see that it's gotten better.

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Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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