Whether it is media ownership, incentive auctions or any other wonkish issue before the FCC, the pace of decision making can be like watching paint dry. Even after work is done, it may not be over: If a federal appeals court strikes down its existing net neutrality rules, the agency could be forced to revisit the thorny issue.
On Tuesday, Tom Wheeler, in his first extended remarks since taking the chairmanship of the FCC, addressed the staff of the agency and told them that their challenge was “to be as nimble as the innovators and network builders who are creating these great opportunities.”
“The first book I wrote was about leadership lessons from the Civil War,” he said, according to a blog post of his remarks. “The first chapter of that book is entitled ‘Dare to Fail.’ It is a philosophy that has been at the heart of the venture capital business from which I come; the majority of a VC’s investments don’t work out as intended, but without taking those risks there can be no big rewards. The industries with which we work are always taking reasonable risks; I hope we won’t shy away from a similar approach.”
That doesn’t necessarily mean that the FCC will suddenly speed up the approval process to the benefit of industry, particularly wireless business that often argues that the FCC’s regulatory hand threatens to stifle innovation. Wheeler said that “a change in technology may occasion a review of the rules, but it does not change the rights of users or the responsibilities of networks.”
Wheeler on Monday announced a series of appointments, and the one that was perhaps the most surprising was that of Gigi Sohn to special counsel for external affairs. Sohn, who has led the public interest group Public Knowledge, had been critical of Wheeler’s predecessor Julius Genachowski for not taking more definitive regulatory action and, more generally, she has warned that the FCC risks irrelevance in the digital age.
Wheeler spent much of his talk outlining, in broad strokes, how the FCC will be important. He said that he assigned Diane Cornell, his special counsel, to head a group to deliver a report within 60 days to offer staffers thoughts about “regulations that are past their prime and procedures that can be improved.” He called the FCC the “optimism agency” of the federal government. saying “The 21st century economy begins here.”
Wheeler’s speech contained only one mention of broadcasting — and in the context of communications revolutions of the past. Some broadcasters griped that the FCC’s priorities under Genachowski favored broadband, and that is likely to be a similar concern as they watch what Wheeler does. Likely to be among the most contentious of all issues Wheeler faces in the coming months is how the agency sets up its incentive auction, in which stations will give up spectrum in exchange for sharing in the proceeds when they are auctioned off for wireless use. The broadcast business finds itself fighting not only over the details of the auction, and what happens to stations forced to move on the channel lineup, but justifying why it too has a future. Few major emergencies pass without the National Assn. of Broadcasters pointing out how much more efficient their 20th technology is in getting the word out versus one-to-one wireless networks.
But Wheeler signaled that he was not about to be swayed by alarming scenarios of what will happen in the future. He told staffers that in his office he has hung a poster from 1839 from Philadelphia in which those who opposed the connection of two rail lines warned, “Mothers Look Out for Your Children” and “Philadelphians, Your Rights Are being Invaded,” calling the coming change in “Violation of the Law.” “I hung the poster as a reminder that the challenges and the passions with which we deal are neither unique or new,” he said.
“The challenge America faces, and that this agency faces, is to secure the future through the actions of the present, by encouraging investment and innovation, preserving competitive opportunities, protecting consumers and assuring the opportunities of the new network extend to all,” he said.