The battle lines over net neutrality are firmly drawn. On one side are internet advocacy groups, large tech companies, and most Democrats. On the other are free-market adherents, telecom companies, and most Republicans.
Then there’s Charles “Chip” Pickering, a conservative Republican former member of Congress and CEO of a telecommunications-industry group called Incompas. He supports net neutrality.
“I don’t think there’s anyone who understands tech and telecommunications as well as he does,” says US representative Anna Eshoo (D-California). “He can give a presentation to a complete neophyte and get them to join the parade because he makes it so compelling.”
Pickering isn’t new to the fight over net neutrality. He introduced one of the first net neutrality bills in Congress during his stint as a representative from Mississippi from 1997 until 2009. At that point, net neutrality wasn’t on the agenda of many politicians on either side of the aisle.
Under Pickering’s leadership, Incompas has been a steadfast defender of rules adopted by the Obama-era Federal Communications Commission that ban broadband providers like Comcast and Verizon from blocking or discriminating against lawful content. That’s placed it at odds with other industry groups working to undermine efforts to mandate net neutrality.
Incompas itself is something of a paradox. Historically, it’s been a voice in Washington for smaller telecommunications companies. But in recent years it also welcomed tech companies as members. And not just companies that have dabbled in offering broadband services themselves, such as Facebook and Google’s parent company, Alphabet. Its ranks also include Amazon, Netflix, and Twitter.
What these companies have in common, Pickering explains, is opposition to the policy preferences of incumbent broadband companies like AT&T. “The idea is to ‘unite the tribes,’ if I were to use a Braveheart analogy,” Pickering says. “I wanted to bring all of us who wanted competition and innovation into one alliance.”
Lessons From the Soviet Bloc
While other Republicans, such as FCC chair Ajit Pai, see net neutrality regulations as government interference in the free market, Pickering sees such rules as necessary to preserve competition on the internet. He notes that most people have access to only one or two broadband providers, according to FCC reports.
Pickering traces his reverence for markets and competition to his time working with a church group in communist Hungary in the 1980s after graduating from the University of Mississippi. “Having grown up in a small town in Mississippi, going to Europe and living in the so-called Soviet Bloc was very much an awakening in trying to understand how the world works,” he says.
‘I don’t think there’s anyone who understands tech and telecommunications as well as he does.’
US representative Anna Eshoo, on Charles Pickering
After returning to the US, Pickering received an MBA from Baylor University, where he served as a graduate assistant to a comparative economics professor who studied Western and Soviet-bloc economies. Pickering concluded that the differences in standards of living and individual freedom he saw between the US and Hungary stemmed largely from the different economic systems.
“I hate to see the consequences of monopolies, and I love what happens when you unleash free-market competition,” he says. “It really gives individuals maximum freedom and opportunity.”
After business school, Pickering worked in President George H. W. Bush’s administration, then landed a job as a staffer for US senator Trent Lott of Mississippi in 1992. Pickering was soon immersed in telecommunications issues such as cable-television competition and wireless spectrum auctions.
It was topical work for a senator from Mississippi, which was something of a hotbed of telco activity. American Cable Systems, the company that became Comcast, started in Tupelo, Mississippi. WorldCom, which changed its name to MCI after acquiring MCI in 1997, was founded in Jackson, Mississippi. And SkyTel, which pioneered two-way texting, was founded in Clinton, Mississippi.
“We’re not only the birthplace of blues, but the birthplace of texting,” Pickering says.
His stint for Lott culminated in his work on the Telecommunications Act of 1996, the first and last major update to telecommunications law since 1934. The act deregulated large swaths of the industry and relaxed media ownership rules. It’s been criticized for paving the way for more consolidation in media and telecommunications. At the time, Pickering saw it as a chance to promote competition by removing legal barriers that kept companies out of the pay-TV, local telephone, and long-distance markets.
Pickering was elected to the US House of Representatives in 1996 and eventually landed on the Energy and Commerce Committee, which handles telecommunications issues. In 2006, he cosponsored a bill that would have made it easier for telephone companies to offer paid TV services and authorized the FCC to enforce a few basic net neutrality protections. The bill wasn’t welcomed by net neutrality advocates, who wanted stricter net neutrality provisions and more rule-making authority for the FCC. But it passed the House, 321 to 101, with bipartisan support before dying in the Senate. Pickering tried to pass net neutrality legislation again in 2008 when he teamed up with representative Ed Markey (D-Massachusetts), who had co-sponsored a separate failed net neutrality bill with Eshoo and others; but that bill never made it out of committee.
Pickering retired from Congress that year. The Democrats had just gained a majority in the House, and Pickering thought he’d be less effective. He also wanted to spend more time with his five sons. “After 20 years of public service, I wanted to make a little bit better of a living and provide more presence and be a part of their lives,” he says.
Baby Bells Grow Up
After a few years practicing law in Mississippi, Pickering landed a job at Incompas, then known as Comptel, in 2014, at a critical juncture for the group.
The organization started out as the Association of Long Distance Telephone Companies, or Altel, in 1981, then changed its name to Comptel in 1985 after merging with the American Council of Competitive Telecommunications. The group played an important role in the telecommunications industry after the government broke AT&T into seven regional carriers, known as the Baby Bells.
“There was a series of litigations about what the restrictions mean, what the Bell companies could do, what the Bell companies could not do,” says Jeff Blumenfeld, co-chair of the law firm Lowenstein Sandler’s antitrust and trade regulation practice, who worked at the Department of Justice during the breakup.
Comptel helped make the case for a competitive market. It played a similar role in the wake of the 1996 act, as regulators implemented its policies.
By the time Pickering took over the organization, Ma Bell’s progeny weren’t babies anymore. They’d merged their way into three telecommunications giants: AT&T, CenturyLink, and Verizon. Meanwhile, Comcast had evolved from small-town cable provider to the largest cable television and home broadband provider in the country. Verizon had swallowed up MCI. Pickering saw the influence that companies like AT&T and Comcast wielded in Washington and realized that their smaller rivals needed partners that opposed the incumbents’ agenda. The tech industry, ever worried about the control that carriers have over how customers access their content, fit the bill perfectly. Bringing in the internet giants infused the group with both the cash and cachet that it would need to fight the next series of battles. The organization changed its name in 2015 to reflect the fact that it now encompassed more industries.
The Trump Era
Even with the new members, life has been rough for the organization in the Trump era. One of Pai’s first actions as FCC chair was to ditch an Obama-era proposal to lower price caps on “business data services”—which provide connectivity to ATMs, for example—and instead eliminate caps for much of the market. And, of course, the agency voted in December to jettison the hard-won net neutrality regulations.
Pickering and company did land a big win last week, when the FCC approved rules that will make it easier for smaller companies to string their wires along existing utility poles. It sounds boring but could spur more competition and lower broadband prices.
But even as the group celebrates that victory, a bigger problem looms, as the FCC considers a petition filed by rival telecom group USTelecom that could cut off access to much of the infrastructure that Incompas’ member companies rely on today. Dane Jasper, CEO of broadband provider and Incompas member Sonic, calls the petition “a knife at the throat of the entire competitive industry.”
And consolidation could thin the organization’s ranks. In 2016, Verizon snapped up XO Communications and CenturyLink bought Level 3. Such deals can make for strange bedfellows within the group. Verizon has long been a “carrier member,” which enables it to participate in Incompas’s trade shows, but bylaws forbid the former Baby Bells from having policy voting rights within the organization.
Earlier this year, T-Mobile agreed to buy Sprint, one of Incompas’ earliest members. The deal is pending. Pickering says Incompas does not have a position the acquisition. (edited)
When it comes to net neutrality, public opinion appears to be on Incompas’ side. Earlier this year, a Morning Consult poll found that 60 percent of registered voters, including 63 percent of Republicans, support the idea. Republican voters were more likely to support net neutrality than Democrats or independents in the poll.
That may be pushing more of Pickering’s fellow Republicans to his side of the issue. In May, three Senate Republicans broke ranks to support legislation that would restore the FCC’s rules, and last month Representative Mike Coffman (R-Colorado) became the first GOP House member to do so, at an event cohosted by Incompas.
Pickering still has a long way to go to win over enough Republicans to restore net neutrality protections. “If anyone can get everyone to the table, it’s Chip,” Eshoo says.