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November 14, 2013

Is Tom Wheeler In for a Rude Awakening at the FCC?


Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is certainly familiar with the agency. He has represented both the cable and the wireless industries, so he’s had plenty of interactions with the FCC during his time in Washington, and no doubt has a clear understanding of both the problems and opportunities awaiting him. One of which is the FCC itself.

In his first address to FCC staff, Wheeler called for the agency to be “as nimble as the innovators and network builders who are creating these great opportunities.”

Nimble? The FCC? It has been anything but, usually taking years to move on the simplest of proceedings, almost always missing self- or congressionally imposed deadlines, structurally forbidding informal discussions between commissioners, and routinely leaving commissioners of the minority party entirely out of discussions.

The FCC has become infamous for exceeding its authority and then losing the resultant court challenges, and most observers expect that trend to continue when the decision on Verizon’s challenge to the FCC’s authority to implement network neutrality rules is handed down soon.

Meanwhile, the FCC leaves in place long-outdated rules, regulations and even bureaus that are within its purview to phase out, and refuses to forebear from regulating even though forbearance is permitted at the discretion of the agency.

Nimble? Certainly a good intention and direction. It will, however, never happen, because it’s impossible for government to move at anything approaching the speed of private sector innovation, which is perhaps the greatest argument for government regulators simply staying out of the way and only intervening when there is evidence of demonstrable harm. But if Wheeler and his private sector experience can push the agency even a smidgeon in the general direction of nimble, that would be a great success.

The FCC is an agency badly in need of modernization itself standing in the way of the modernization of our communications infrastructure. Wheeler should start by recognizing that it is ridiculous for our wireline communications infrastructure to still be required to maintain and operate an outdated circuit-switched network. We are well into the transition from analog to digital communications in every area except wireline, where providers are still required by the FCC to operate a network based on 50-year-old technology.

Here’s hoping the FCC gets on with the business of facilitating, rather than hindering, private sector innovation. We wish you well, Mr. Wheeler.


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