Back when former Federal Communications Commission Chairman Julius Genachowski announced his departure, we at Public Knowledge had a few things we said we wanted to see in his replacement. While it’s obviously way too early to judge incoming Chairman Tom Wheeler, it’s worth noting that the initial signs look favorable – and give us some clues as to where Wheeler will want to go in his first few months.
Let me first start out by once again applauding former Chairwoman (now back to Commissioner) Clyburn for what everyone agrees was an astoundingly productive tenure as Chair. Over the course of six months, Clyburn tackled such topics as clarifying consumer privacy rights around mobile phone data, protecting the families of the incarcerated from rip-off phone rates, scheduling the FCC’s first major spectrum auction since 2008, and a number of other important issues.
Clyburn sets a very high bar for Wheeler to follow. In addition, we at PK had our own set of things we wanted to see. We wanted someone comfortable with the FCC’s role as a regulator charged with championing the public interest and protecting consumers, someone who understands the role of Congress and who would enhance the overall transparency of how the FCC does business. Most importantly, we wanted someone who would dig right in and get things done – because we have a lot of things that need to get done.
So what do we know about Wheeler from his first week and his staff picks?
First, he appointed our (now former) President and CEO Gigi B. Sohn to his office. That speaks well to his intention to champion the public interest. The rest of Wheeler’s staff consist of a mix of policy folks who manage to be intimately familiar with the industry and the policy but do not represent any particular industry segment. For example, incoming Wireless Bureau Chief Roger Sherman knows the wireless issues and the politics around them from his years working for Ranking Member of the Energy and Commerce Committee Henry Waxman (D-CA) – rather than working for any particular segment of the industry.
Critically, none of the people named by Wheeler in his first staff announcements need time to get up to speed on the issues. All have reputations as being smart and substantive on policy. While some significant holes remain (e.g., Media Bureau Chief), it’s clear that Wheeler plans to hit the ground running on wireless and the transition of the phone system.
Encouraging Opening Speeches
Again, adjusting for the fact that anyone can talk a good game, Wheeler’s opening speeches and press interviews have hit the right notes on the PK Checklist. Notably:
In his opening blog post (based on his introductory speech), Wheeler highlighted the role of the FCC in “preserving the historic compact between networks and user” which includes “the rights of users and the responsibilities of networks.” As anyone familiar with our Five Fundamentals Framework knows, we think that this “historic compact between networks and users” provides the foundation for a successful transition of our telephone system to the next generation of technologies.
Wheeler took the time to stop by the FCC’s workshop on unlicensed use in the broadcast bands (aka the “TV white spaces” (TVWS) or “Super WiFi”) and give some opening remarks. (Video of the event here). Wheeler acknowledged there would be “tensions” between licensed and unlicensed interests, and made it clear that “unlicensed spectrum has been, and must continue to be, the catalyst of innovation. Therefore, we must make sure that unlicensed spectrum is a key part of whatever decisions that we make.”
As someone who has long argued that a well constructed incentive auction can give us an improved TVWS, lots of licenses to auction, and a robust broadcasting industry, I find this very encouraging – especially given the hostility shown to unlicensed in the TV bands by some.
Invitation to Dicker
More importantly, I read Wheeler’s speech (which also emphasized that he FCC is not “pro” any particular industry and that “it is a process full of give and take” and “not as extreme in consequences as the ‘my way or the end of the world’ presentations sometimes make it”) as a signal that the agency is getting close to a set of decisions and we have now entered the “dicker” stage.
For months, pro-unlicensed companies have pressed for their best case, while those opposing unlicensed use have insisted that any unlicensed use in the guard bands will cause interference and that the FCC should focus on auctioning every possible MHz of spectrum. This is, of course, fairly typical of FCC proceedings.
But also typical, there comes a time when the agency starts to narrow in on a set of decisions and pushes the parties to stop arguing for their “best case” and start focusing on actual needs and concerns. Wheeler signaled pretty strongly that we have reached that stage. Proponents of unlicensed need to provide some engineering data to rebut claims by Qualcomm and others that any unlicensed use would cause harmful interference to licensees. At the same time, licensees need to really cost justify the difference between a 10-MHz guard band and a 12-MHz guard band if those two extra MHz buy a whole 6 MHz channel of usable spectrum for TVWS.
That’s a pretty substantive signal for the first week as Chair, and good sign that Wheeler plans to move quickly on a decision (i.e., possibly by the end of the year, certainly in the first quarter of next year), assuming the record is complete.
So How Does Wheeler Stack Up?
So far Wheeler is shaping up fairly well along our PK checklist. This does not, of course, mean we will agree with everything he decides. But the initial signs seem fairly positive.
The only place he falls down is that I distinctly said “no scholars.” Obviously, Wheeler is a scholar, given not only his record as a published historian but his reference to the origin of the name Bluetooth for the wireless protocol. But as long as Wheeler gets things done, and champions the public interest, I can live with it.