Q&A—Former FCC chairman Wheeler speaks out on zero-rated data, the IoT and what he’s doing now

During his tenure at the FCC, Tom Wheeler oversaw several major policy initiatives including the passage of the Open Internet guidelines.

Tom Wheeler has enjoyed a long and varied career in the telecom space. After serving as the top lobbyist for both the wireless and cable industries, former President Barack Obama appointed him as chairman of the FCC in 2013. During his tenure at the agency, Wheeler oversaw several major policy initiatives including the passage of the FCC’s Open Internet guidelines, which spelled out net neutrality rules that largely forbade internet service providers from creating internet fast lanes for more wealthy users or creating traffic tolls for competitors. Wheeler also launched the incentive auction of TV broadcasters’ unwanted 600 MHz radio waves, as well as efforts geared at probing the use of zero-rated data, closed set-top box environments, among other actions.

The below are lightly edited answers Wheeler wrote in response to questions from FierceWireless:

FierceWireless: How have you been spending your time following your departure from the FCC? 

Wheeler: I took a month-long vacation with my wife, and have been weighing the options before me. The wonderful people at the Aspen Institute have given me a fellowship that allows for a leisurely contemplation of issues and the future.

FierceWireless: Looking back on your time as chairman, what would you consider your highlights? 

Wheeler: It was the most incredible privilege to be in that role as networks changed and thus changed the way we live our lives and do business.

I’m proud that we brought the concept of agile software development to the FCC in the form of agile regulatory actions that respond to circumstances (e.g., the general conduct rule for the Open Internet, the “trust but verify” approach to cybersecurity, etc.). I’m proud of our efforts to expand access to networks (spectrum auctions, eRate, LifeLine, etc.); assure that those networks are fast, fair and open; to make the expectation of privacy a default for those who use networks; and to make network cybersecurity a major responsibility for the agency.

FierceWireless: Under its new chairman, Ajit Pai, the FCC is moving forward with LTE-U technology, and is also paving the way for zero-rated data services from wireless carriers. Do you have a response to either of these actions? 

Wheeler: The zero-rating decision to allow networks to leverage off their monopoly position to thwart competition is a step backward for consumers and competition.

Insofar as LTE-U, you will recall that we worked hard to make sure that the licensed and unlicensed communities were cooperating to respect the listen-before-talk protocol.  

FierceWireless: Why did you join the board of IoT player Actility? What is it about this company specifically? 

Wheeler: Actility has built a powerful platform that allows anyone to enjoy the benefits of the Internet of Things regardless of the network they are using—private, unlicensed or licensed. The Internet of Things is the opening act of Web 3.0. What we’ve seen thus far of the Web has been consumer-facing; Web 3.0 will produce new productivity and new products for the key business sectors of the economy.

FierceWireless: There are a lot of companies working to build IoT wireless networks, from Sigfox to Senet to AT&T with its LTE M network. How do you think this space will develop? How big is the LPWAN IoT opportunity? 

Wheeler: What is exciting about Actility is that it is network agnostic. In a world in which there are tens of billions of connected devices, the challenge is how to have a common platform that handles communication, BSS and OSS, as well as the management of the data being collected. Actility is able to work with everyone.

FierceWireless: What is the biggest obstacle in the IoT sector? What do you think needs to change to make the IoT a big deal? 

Wheeler: If networks aren’t open then those who own the networks will control what happens on them, including IoT. If the information going over the network isn’t private, then networks will be able to purloin the data of someone else for their own purposes, thus diminishing the value of that data to its creator. If networks, storage and devices aren’t secure, then the confidence to use the networks will be diminished.