How Will the FCC’s Tom Wheeler Get Past His Image Problem?

His detractors think he’s conflict of interest incarnate

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler has an image problem. The New Yorker’s article about him on the occasion of his confirmation last year was called “Obama’s Bad Pick.” In the piece, John Cassidy observed that Wheeler seemed bright and independent. “[T]o some extent, though,” he wrote, “you are your résumé,” and Wheeler’s résumé includes high-level posts at cable lobbying organizations. John Oliver memorably said in June that hiring Wheeler for the position at the notoriously mismanaged commission “was the equivalent of needing a babysitter and hiring a dingo.”

Oddly, out of all the disparaging things said about Wheeler since his appointment, that appears to be the one that stung. Sighing, Wheeler took a question on Oliver’s Last Week Tonight segment (which dealt with net neutrality) at a public comment session and said, “I would like to state for the record that I’m not a dingo.”

He seems to have set out to prove it. Last month, Wheeler delivered whatever the telecommunications equivalent of a rabble-rousing speech is, citing the virtues of regulation and observing that “three-quarters of American homes have no competitive choice for the essential infrastructure for 21st-century economics and democracy.”

This is hardly the kind of rhetoric hoped for by Comcast and AT&T, both of which praised Wheeler’s appointment (“an inspired pick” to take on “outdated laws” and “antiquated rules,” breathed AT&T). But if Wheeler’s speechifying is to mean anything, he’s got to weigh in on AT&T’s battle with municipal cable companies and the Comcast/Time Warner Cable merger, and it looks like he’s going to do just that.

Comcast and TWC generously told the FCC that they will try to stay below a 30 percent market share when they merge (they control more than one-third of the market together); Comcast is looking to pull out of Detroit, where it announced last week it will be leaving its 2.5 million customers. That doesn’t exactly jibe with the FCC’s “broadband for all” mandate. Now, the agency has paused the informal 180-day review period until Oct. 29, during which time stakeholders and the public will be able to comment on the $45 billion deal.

Both are crucial moments for Wheeler and his legacy as chairman. Will the FCC create the largest cable company in the market and define competition as narrowly as MSOs want? Or will it punish what the public overwhelmingly derides as the worst customer service in the country?