New FCC chairman Tom Wheeler may have stepped in it with his insistence to open up for comment a rule that would make it possible for consumers to use their cellphones in airplanes. So far the rule, which squeaked by in a 3-2 vote party-line vote Thursday afternoon during the commission's monthly meeting, has given him nothing but trouble.
The issue has engulfed the chairman's first 40 days in his position, detracting from his overarching agenda to usher in the next network revolution. Even a favorable deal with the wireless cellphone companies to make it easier for consumers to unlock their phones and change providers when contracts expire, took a backseat to the controversy over whether consumers should be allowed to use their phones in flight.
Not only do consumers hate the rule, believing it would disrupt their peace and quiet in the air, but it may have also cost Wheeler some much needed political capital with one of his fellow Democratic commissioners.
In a stunning statement, commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel did everything but vote against the rulemaking. It was very clear she never wanted the rule to become an item for the FCC in the first place (perhaps believing the FCC had much more important matters to attend to.) Whatever her motives, Rosenworcel did not mince words.
"I do not like this proceeding. Because I believe as public servants we have a duty to look beyond these four walls and ask ourselves if our actions do, in fact, serve the public. When it comes to authorizing voice calls on planes, I think the answer is a resounding no. We are not just technicians," Rosenworcel said during the Thursday afternoon proceeding.
Rosenworcel's remarks surprised observers, who expected her to vote in favor of the item, which she did, along with her Democratic colleague, former acting chairwoman Mignon Clyburn. But it also sent a clear message to Wheeler that he may have a little fence-mending to do.
Since he proposed allowing cellphone calls in the air, it's been nothing but trouble for Wheeler. But rather than back down, he just keeps defending it, explaining that it's all about the technology, but still punting the ultimate policy decisions to the FAA and the individual airlines.
"We are not the Federal Courtesy Commission," Wheeler said.
If it weren't for the fight over cellphone use on airplanes, Wheeler might have started off his tenure at the FCC as a friend of the consumer. Instead, he looks more like a referee in "a cage match at 30,000 feet," to borrow a phrase from Rep. Greg Walen (R-Ore.).