Trump Keeps Us All Guessing On Telecom.

Usually in January, especially with a new Congress of new term, I like to try to do a “this year in telecom” preview. Hell, who doesn’t? (I mean, who in Telecom Policyland doesn’t. The answer for normal people is: “no one.”) But this year I can’t.

 

Oh, I can list all the issues we’ve been arguing over the last few years and guarantee we’re going to re-litigate them. We’ve already seen most of the ISP industry (joined by the Ad industry) push back on the privacy rules adopted last October.  We’ve seen a bunch of the industry submit their wish list for deregulation as part of the bienniel telecom regulatory review. And with Rep. Marsha Blackburn (R-TN) now Chair of the Telecom Subcommittee, we can expect lots of action on the Hill side on everything from FCC process reform to Telecom Act re-write. But the Trump Administration itself — its priorities, its possible pick for FCC Chair, and its general direction on telecom policy — remain as much a mystery as when I wrote about it last month.

 

 

Until two weeks ago, things seemed to have settled into something of a pattern. Trump’s “landing team” for the FCC consisted of a trioka of American Enterprise Institute (AEI) economists with a history of pushing for the dismantling of the FCC. The FCC Republicans were giving speeches about how they planned to dismantle Wheeler’s initiatives and engage in an orgy of deregulation that would make the Powell FCC seem positively tame by comparison. AT&T officials had met with the Trump transition team and reported themselves re-assured that Trump had no serious intention of blocking their proposed acquisition of Time Warner. It appeared to be settling into a fairly clear — if depressing from my perspective — pattern.

 

Then things began to change.

 

First, Trump added Bandwidth.com CEO David Morken to the FCC Landing Team. Morken has exactly the opposite profile of Eisenach & friends. Rather than an academic extremist with no practical experience beyond “consulting” (i.e., generating economic studies for hire), Morken has actually started two fairly successful companies (Bandwidth.com and Republic Wireless). While the word “disruptive” is over-used to the point of cliche in this space, Morken’s companies are not typical incumbent carriers. Bandwidth.com has become a highly successful competitive local exchange carrier (CLEC). Republic Wireless has pioneered the “wi-fi first” mobile carrier policy that cable operators and Google Access are reportedly looking to deploy. While the AEI Trioka have made no secret of their radical deregulatory agenda, Morken has not personally made any comments on what he thinks about FCC authority generally. While his companies have not been super active in any FCC proceeding, he comes from a CLEC and therefore is at least aware on a first hand basis about the difficulties competitors find in the marketplace.

 

Then last week, we saw several new developments in the otherwise quiet realm of Telecomland. A report surfaced that Trump, and inner circle adviser and strategist Steve Bannon, still oppose the AT&T/TW as concentrating too much power in the hands of too few companies. That potentially raises hackles for Comcast/NBCU and Republicans eager to eliminate the remaining broadcast ownership rules. The same day, another story circulated that Rupert Murdoch was giving Trump a list of recommendations for FCC Chair. Both of these are, of course, rumors and leaks and may or may not mean anything. But these are from mainstream press types, not “fake news” organizations, so they have as much validity as any other set of rumors related to the incoming Trump Administration.

 

One thing is certain at least, and not rumor. Trump appointed yet another member to the FCC Landing team. Carolyn Tatum Roddy. Roddy is an actual lawyer, the first to join the FCC Landing Team. She has a background in telecom law having worked for Sprint, the Satellite Industry Association, and running her own telecom firm. Like Morken, she does not have a history of being particularly ideological about the FCC. Her background suggests someone who has familiarity with the nuts and bolts of what the FCC does, and why eliminating it would be a bad idea. But, as with Morken, we don’t have any idea what her role will actually be in the transition or what her positions might be on general FCC policy. All we know is that in two weeks, the FCC Landing Team has gone from a Trioka of AEI radical dergulators to 5 members. The AEI Trioka still has the majority, for whatever that’s worth. But why bring in more people at this stage?

 

Finally, we have Trump getting closer to Silicon Valley.  Most recently, Elon Musk (who doesn’t have any particular interest in telecom) has been seen meeting with the Trump Team in NYC.  This may not seem relevant to telecom policy, except that folks in DC on Team Carrier have long insisted that the Obama policy was all about favoring Silicon Valley (Google usually, but any other tech company would do as a supposed teacher’s pet at need) and that now that Trump was coming to town we could expect policy to favor good, honest job creating carriers over nasty parasites in Silicon Valley. Recent general coziness between Trump and Silicon Valley leaders, however, suggests maybe not so much. But will that extend down to the policy level?

 

So What Does It All Mean?

 

Beats me. One can come up with any set of explanations based on the very limited data available. The rumors about AT&T/TW or Murdoch may be totally untrue. Or it could be, as some of us argued back at the start, that Trump and Bannon have a particular interest in media and have their own plans for the FCC. Under that theory, the AEI Trioka were basically a place holder until Trump and Bannon got the first tier cabinet positions filled. Or it could all just be about getting pissed off at Saturday Night Live and CNN over Russian Hacking Reports. It could be infighting between Trump factions. It could be a clever double feint by Trump to stir things up and keep things unpredictable. You can find any theory out there to match with the existing set of facts and rumors.

 

Consider, for example, the two rumors that (a) Trump worries about concentration of ownership; and (b) he wants Rupert Murdoch, whose News Corp is one of the largest owners of television broadcast stations in the country, to recommend potential FCC Chair picks. And what would a Murdoch choice think about net neutrality? Traditionally, conservatives hate the words “network neutrality.” But conservatives (and content creators generally) were insanely worried in the Comcast/TWC deal about Comcast’s ability to control the market for video through both size and potential discrimination. How do these things get reconciled, assuming there is any truth to either story?

 

So as we count down the days until the Trump inauguration and a new FCC, we have no better idea about the incoming Trump Administration’s ultimate policy goals. We can guess ’til the cows come home. We can assume that the Pai/O’Reilly FCC will do what it can to move as quickly as possible to roll things back — or at least set the table to roll things back. Or will they wait for instructions from the Administration? Or do they already have a green light to go ahead?

 

I guess we’ll find out in two weeks.

 

Stay tuned . . . .

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