Five Questions for the Next FCC Chief

Tom Wheeler, the White House’s pick to head the Federal Communications Commission, was for years a well-heeled lobbyist for cable and wireless companies. He also served the president’s 2008 and 2012 election campaigns as a top “bundler,” raising more than $700,000 from undisclosed donors in support of Obama.

Many in the public interest community see Wheeler’s insider status as more of a minus than a plus. Wheeler’s confirmation hearing in the Senate today is the nominee’s best chance to prove his skeptics wrong.

Wheeler can start by showing his cards on the most important media issues facing the nation.

The right questions from the Senate Commerce Committee could draw Wheeler out — and tell us whether the FCC will actually deliver on promises to promote openness, access, innovation and choice.

Here are five questions the Committee should pose:

1. Will You Protect Internet Freedom? High-speed Internet providers shouldn’t decide which websites, apps or devices you can use online. Verizon has challenged the FCC’s Open Internet rules in a lawsuit claiming it has the First Amendment right to “edit” Internet users. Whatever that case’s outcome, the next FCC chair needs to enforce the rules we already have on the books and strengthen Net Neutrality protections going forward.

This means clarifying the agency’s authority to protect both wired and wireless Internet users against online blocking, filtering and discrimination. Wheeler needs to stand with supporters of Net Neutrality and against efforts to turn the network into a private toll lane.

2. Will You Preserve the Public’s Network? High-speed Internet services are not a luxury but a necessity. Thus far the FCC has all but ignored its responsibility to keep this public infrastructure open and available to all. The next chair needs to clarify and use the agency’s authority to make broadband accessible and affordable.

AT&T has petitioned the FCC to kill what remains of the public telecommunications network — and all of the consumer protections that go with it. If the petition is successful, it would be the coup de grace of a decade-long effort to destroy all regulatory oversight of the industry. This move would jettison all of the public interest protections that govern telecommunications companies, and usher in a new era of spiraling costs and dwindling services. Wheeler needs to stop these efforts to kill off the public network and to undermine the FCC’s ability to protect consumers.

3. Will You Provide More Choices for Internet Users? The next chair needs to push policies that will foster competition, drive down prices and expand access for everyone. Americans still pay high prices for Internet speeds that are only a fraction of what’s available in other developed countries. More competition among wired and wireless providers is a market-based solution that serves users.

There are many ways the agency can help foster choice. One is striking the right balance in the upcoming incentive auction to promote competition among wireless carriers and open more spectrum for innovative uses like Wi-Fi. Another is protecting the right of communities to build their own broadband networks and connect more of their residents.

4. Will You Boost Media Diversity? We need a media system that reflects our increasingly diverse population. Unfortunately, broadcast owners don’t look like the rest of America. While women make up more than half the population, and people of color account for well over one-third of the nation, women own less than 7 percent of radio and TV stations and people of color own just 3 percent of TV stations and 7 percent of radio stations.

The FCC is the only agency with a mandate to make the communications industry more diverse, local and accountable. The next chair shouldn’t be as lax on this issue as previous chairs have been. Wheeler must commit to improving the FCC’s broadcast ownership rules, stemming the tide of media consolidation and enabling more diverse ownership of radio and TV stations.

5. Will You Prioritize Political Transparency? The FCC has the power and responsibility to demand transparency from political advertisers and local broadcasters. As broadcasters rake in record amounts of revenue from political ads, they’re fighting efforts to expose the sources of money behind these frequently misleading spots.

Broadcasters are federally mandated to “fully and fairly disclose the true identity of the person or persons, or corporation, committee, association or other unincorporated group” paying for political commercials. The next FCC chair should make these funders disclose their identities in the ads themselves.

We need a true public-interest champion as the next FCC chair — not yet another commissioner who’s beholden to industry. Today’s hearing will give us a sense of which direction Wheeler’s prepared to go in.