Interview: Tom Wheeler isn’t afraid to wave the FCC’s big regulatory stick

New Federal Communications Chairman Tom Wheeler this week set the tone for the agency’s relationship with the mobile industry. Earlier this week he sent a letter to the CTIA — the mobile operator lobbying group he once headed up — telling them to either adopt a consumer-friendly phone unlocking policy or have the FCC do it for them. In an interview with Gigaom on Friday, Wheeler said we should expect to see a lot more of the same in his five-year tenure.

While Wheeler stopped short of saying he was taking a hard line against telceom and cable companies, he said he is not adverse to using the threat of regulation to get carriers to correct their more anti-consumer practices.

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“I believe that there is an inverse relationship between marketplace behavior and regulation,” Wheeler said. “Where companies step up and address concerns, that should be a mitigating force for that solution rather than regulation. But like I said in the letter, if you don’t, we will. That will be a common message we’ll be delivering to a lot of industries.”

The phone unlocking debate has been one that has particularly riled consumers who have paid off the cost of their devices and completed their contracts, but find their devices locked to the carriers they bought them from. While many carriers will unlock devices once all or a portion of their users’ contracts are complete, Wheeler not only wants them to codify that practice in CTIA’s consumer code, but also proactively notify customers their phones are eligible for unshackling — or automatically unlock them.

That said, Wheeler said his first choice is to make policy through industry agreement, not the FCC’s rulemaking powers. He said his FCC can affect policy more and more quickly with industry assent than regulation. But I’m beginning to suspect Wheeler might be a Teddy Roosevelt admirer because he kept emphasizing the commission’s big stick.

“I am ready to go through the rulemaking process, he said. “I am ready to say that these are things that need to be done.”

Merger ahead sign acquisitionHe didn’t offer up any more specifics on other anti-consumer industry practices he may target in the future, but he also said there a lot of issues before the FCC he simply hasn’t made his mind up about yet. When asked specifically about whether the commission would permit more consolidation in the mobile industry, Wheeler said he would look at every merger and acquisition on a case-by-case basis. While he said he felt the mobile industry in most cities was competitive, he added that the current level of competition needs to be preserved.

On the issue of net neutrality, which Stacey Higginbotham and I feel will be one of the three biggest challenges Wheeler will face during his tenure, the chairman said the FCC is adopting a “a wait and see” approach. The FCC’s net neutrality rules are under attack in the courts as is the commission’s authority to prevent carriers and ISPs from blocking or otherwise discriminating against certain types of traffic traversing their networks. Regardless of the outcome of the Verizon(s vz) case, Wheeler said, the FCC still has a mandate to protect consumers and promote competition.

“I don’t think this is the be-all and end-all of the FCC’s authority,” Wheeler said. “What is before the court is one company’s appeal of one approach to the topic of the internet. I don’t think we should consider one company’s appeal and one company’s approach definitive of the topic.”

Feature image courtesy of Shutterstock user Andrey_Popov; Sign image courtesy of Shutterstock user Gary Paul Lewis