On the day he is sworn in as president of the U.S., Trump’s telco policies are still anyone’s guess.
Never assume, because when you assume, you make an ass of ‘u’ and ‘me’.
This well-known witticism aptly serves as one lesson to be learned from Trump’s ascent to the most powerful political office on Earth. Despite every assumption to the contrary, he will be sworn in today as the 45th president of the United States at an inauguration ceremony in Washington D.C.
Just let that thought sink in for a bit…
Many assumed that someone like Trump, who ran an election campaign the way Trump did, would easily lose November’s election.
Many also assume that when Trump talked of deregulation on the campaign trail, that he meant it. Certainly his cabinet picks – several of whom have been openly hostile in the past to the departments they now lead – point to deregulation. The stock market seems to believe Trump too, given the rally sparked by his election victory.
But the likely truth is that not even Trump knows what he is going to do. Trump will probably base his decisions on what best serves his interest at that particular point in time, and then distance himself from said decisions should they go pear-shaped. Or mushroom-cloud-shaped, if you like.
In an opinion piece on Thursday, the Washington Post declared that Trump has assembled the worst cabinet in American history, given its lack of experience, qualifications, and its many conflicts of interest.
So, what does an inexperienced, under-qualified cabinet (one that is probably more likely to defer to Trump on difficult decisions because its members would never have got anywhere near the cabinet without Trump’s help), led by Trump – a man described by the outgoing president as "uniquely unqualified" to be commander in chief – really mean for the telecoms industry?
That question is nigh-on impossible to answer with any certainty, but let’s have a go anyway.
For a change, we’ll start with some potentially good news for mobile operators and their customers.
In his confirmation hearing this week, Wilbur Ross – Trump’s pick for commerce secretary – said he is keen to free up more spectrum.
"We need more spectrum in the private sector. I will try my best to help convince those government agencies that have spectrum and don’t really need it, to permit it to be commercialised," he said in his hearing, a full transcript of which is hosted by the Internet Archive.
"That may well be a help to extending broadband to more rural communities and other segments that are underserved right now," he said.
More frequency auctions would also be a boon for the treasury, and, depending how the auctions are conducted, could help stimulate further competition in the mobile market.
Spectrum auctions are the preserve of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), of course, which is in line for a major shake-up once Trump takes office.
We already know that Trump’s FCC transition team is, for the most part, opposed to one of the watchdog’s more contentious regulations, net neutrality.
As previously reported, Jefferey Eisenach has testified against the Open Internet rules, while Mark Jamison has argued that the FCC should be in charge of licensing spectrum, and the rest of its responsibilities divided up among other agencies.
Trump has added two more advisors since then: David Morken is co-founder and CEO of Bandwidth.com, which provides OTT voice and messaging APIs to developers and enterprises, and co-founder and chairman of WiFi-led mobile service Republic Wireless.
Unlike Eisenach and Jamison, Morken has never publicly voiced opposition to net neutrality. His companies compete with big telcos and big OTT players like Facebook, WhatsApp and Google’s MVNO service, Fi, so it could be that he is in favour of rules preventing big OTTs from paying telcos to prioritise their traffic.
Trump has also appointed Roslyn Layton. A telco consultant and professor at Denmark’s Aalborg University, Layton is an outspoken critic of net neutrality as administered under Title II of the Communications Act, describing it as onerous, and putting investment at risk. She insists that market forces are capable of ensuring that ISPs do not discriminate between different online services.
What we don’t know for certain yet is who will replace Tom Wheeler as FCC chairman.
Ajit Pai, a Republican who already serves as an FCC commissioner, is the favourite to succeed Wheeler. Trump’s press secretary Sean Spicer confirmed to various outlets that Trump met with Pai on Monday, and he is expected to be named interim FCC chairman today. Another Republican FCC commissioner, Michael O’Reilly, is also in the frame.
However, a source cited in a recent New York Magazine report claimed that Trump asked 21st Century Fox chairman Rupert Murdoch for a list of FCC chairman candidates.
Aside from the obvious ethical issue of asking a person who owns a pro-Trump news organisation to recommend someone to regulate his industry, this could also have implications for the new administration’s telco policies.
21st Century Fox competes with Time Warner, which has agreed to be taken over by AT&T. A separate source said in the NYMag report that Murdoch wants strict conditions placed on the merger and could lobby Trump to do so.
Furthermore, it is worth considering where an FCC chairman backed by Murdoch would come down on net neutrality. 21st Century Fox needs networks to carry its content to audiences, and it would surely prefer it if companies like AT&T did not prioritise their own media assets, particularly if the Time Warner deal goes ahead.
The upshot is, don’t assume that because Trump has said he will deregulate that he will actually go ahead with it. His final decision will probably depend on what best serves his interests at that particular moment in time.
Still, it’s not like he’s in charge of anything scary, like a military with lots of nuclear weapons…
Happy inauguration day, everyone! See you after the weekend, hopefully!