Nobody can claim that Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler is an industry puppet anymore.
Comcast's spectacular failure to close its $45 billion merger with Time Warner Cable undercuts the age-old Washington wisdom that money and political connections — of which Comcast has a great deal — are the keys to power.
But it also upends a longstanding narrative about the tendency of private sector officials like Wheeler to favor their former colleagues when they enter public service.
The collapse of the Comcast merger is a landmark moment for Wheeler, a former chief lobbyist for a leading cable industry association. Seventeen months into his tenure, Wheeler's FCC has emerged as one of the most aggressive regulators the industry has ever seen.
"It is a tribute to Tom Wheeler for demonstrating willingness to take on the politically powerful cable industry," said Andrew Schwartzman, a law scholar at Georgetown University. "There has been, and there [will] be, a lot of political heat for doing this."
Many consumer advocates were on edge when Wheeler, who declined to be interviewed for this article, took office. They believed he would begin pushing policies that would benefit the industry he once represented. Instead, Wheeler took a series of surprising actions that have now culminated in the collapse of the biggest cable merger regulators have ever faced.
Over a matter of months, analysts say, FCC officials effectively foreshadowed their efforts to block the Comcast merger. In September, Wheeler gave a speech in which he said the country lacked sufficient competition in the broadband industry, pointing out that most people had only two providers to choose from when purchasing the fastest types of Internet service.
Then, in January, the FCC raised the threshold for what is considered "high-speed" Internet. Under that new baseline, Comcast's merger with Time Warner Cable would have given it control of more than half the U.S. broadband market.
The prospect of so many Internet subscribers living under one company did little to reassure regulators who worried the deal was bad for competition and not in the public interest, according to a senior FCC official.
Finally, the FCC in February slapped new restrictions on Internet providers as part of its net neutrality rules, handing a major defeat to cable companies, including Comcast. The new rules banned broadband companies from unfairly slowing down or blocking consumers' access to Web sites. And it made it illegal to speed up Web sites in exchange for payments from content providers.
Although Wheeler had previously floated a less aggressive proposal — prompting critics to accuse him of selling out — his ultimate move was far more ambitious than many expected.
Given that track record, it would have been difficult for the FCC to approve the Comcast merger, analysts said.
Industry officials had initially hailed Wheeler's nomination in 2013 as an "exceptional choice." Comcast itself commended Wheeler's "vast knowledge" and "proven leadership."
But on the nation's most divisive technology questions, the results of the past year have stunned many who come into contact with the FCC. Wheeler has consistently defied categorization; people who have worked closely with him describe him as an independent thinker who does not shy away from a fight.
Those who predicted Wheeler would favor industry interests "misunderstood him from the beginning — the notion that because he had represented various industries, he was suddenly in their pocket never made any sense," said one industry lawyer, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he represents clients before the FCC.
Wheeler, 69, does not need to seek another job when he departs the FCC, and that freedom enables him to make the decisions he thinks is right, according to people close to the chairman.
On the day the FCC approved the rules, Wheeler told reporters he had made a clean break from his past as chief executive of CTIA, the top trade group for the cellular industry, and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the leading association for the cable industry.
"When I was at CTIA and NCTA, I was an advocate for those interests and I hope I did a very good job as an advocate for them," Wheeler said. "Today, I have a different client. My client is the American people, and I want to be the best damn advocate they can get."