Great Expectations

Viewpoint: Wheeler Defies Conventional Wisdom

The most striking thing about the implosion of the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal wasn’t how shockingly fast it seemed to unravel, or the stiff upper lip of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts on CNBC Friday morning when he said, “Time to move on.”

It was just how wrong the conventional wisdom was on the deal and the man largely responsible for its demise, Federal Communications Commission chairman Tom Wheeler.

Most inside and outside the Beltway had largely expected the deal to get done, partly because of a host of conditions similar to the ones that passed muster for Comcast’s NBCUniversal acquisition.

And why not? Wheeler, the former cable and wireless lobbyist, was welcomed with open arms by the cable faithful when he arrived in 2013. Even when he gave the industry a stern welcome in his first appearance at the annual cable show, he was considered a friendly force.

To consumers outside the industry, his past as a lobbyist for the very companies he was now regulating was considered a joke, quite literally, as when John Oliver on HBO’s Last Week Tonight famously compared him to a dingo working as a babysitter in the debate over net neutrality.

What a difference a few months makes. Wheeler is now seen as one of the toughest regulators around.

A history buff, Wheeler has said the Internet is as essential as electricity, and that the government must play a role in safeguarding consumers’ rights and preventing discrimination of competitors by giant ISPs.

With President Obama standing firmly behind him, Wheeler came down hard on what he said was the side of consumers — and decidedly against industry — when in February the FCC passed new rules regulating Internet service under Title II. Wheeler labeled the ISPs gatekeepers and considered them would-be monopolists. And while he was at it, he pre-empted state laws limiting muni broadband, tabbing them as the handiwork of ISPs trying to block competition, his newfound mantra.

And in a defining moment last week, the FCC’s deal-vetting team helped kill the Comcast-Time Warner Cable deal, a move Wheeler said was “in the best interests of consumers.”

In the end, Wheeler has defied the expectations of his allies and critics alike. In politics, nothing is as it appears.