FCC Chairman Wheeler, Facing Auctions, Shares Regulatory Philosophy

By Michelle Maisto  |  Posted 2014-01-12 Print this article Print

Wheeler took a "commercial break" during the spectrum policy portion of his talk to speak frankly about the need for his "friends in the broadcasting business" to take advantage of the "once-in-a-lifetime opportunity" to sell off their spectrum so lucratively. He also told those in the audience whose innovations depend on spectrum availability that encouraging their broadcaster friends to sell is also in their own best interests.

All-IP Networks, the Open Internet

Wheeler's second major point was about preserving the Network Compact and speeding the transition to all-IP networks. The Network Compact may be summarized, in Wheeler's words, as the "timeless values" the FCC is organized around.

The carriers are anxious to begin transitioning from old copper infrastructure to IP-based networks. But as the laws pertaining to the networks—things like the guarantee of being able to have a phone line no matter where one lives, to being able to contact emergency services via 911 and to be guaranteed privacy on one's phone line—are tied to the copper networks themselves, they must be revisited as those networks disappear.

(Following Hurricane Sandy, parts of New York had an early, and unsatisfactory, experience with early, purely IP-based networks, suggesting there is still work that needs to be done.)

Finally, Wheeler broached the Open Internet, a topic that returned to headlines in recent days, following AT&T's introduction of Sponsored Data plans. The plans let businesses pay for consumers' mobile data costs when they visit a site, watch a video or more; AT&T likens the offer to an 800 number, while critics say it's a barrier to competition. Wheeler has said the FCC will look into the offer.

He then seemed to suggest that while he means to uphold justice, he has no interest in refereeing each swipe competitors take at each other:

"It may well be that the kind of offering AT&T has announced enables increased competition and increased efficiency—both things that benefit customers. It is not the sort of thing that should be prohibited out of hand. But, again, history instructs us that not all new proposals have been benign. There has to be some ability on the part of government to oversee, to assess and, if warranted, to intervene.

"Let me be clear about this. I am not advocating intervention unless there is an unmistakable warrant for it. I am not interested in protecting competitors from competition, nor am I interested in presiding over a festival of rent seeking. But I am committed to maintaining our networks as conduits for commerce large and small, as factors of production for innovative services and products, and for channels of all of the forms of speech protected by the First Amendment. We should not let these things be impaired."

Wheeler closed his speech by imploring Silicon Valley innovators to get involved with the FCC and contribute their insights and technology to the "kind of ecosystem most conductive to technological process and dynamism." It's not too much to say, he concluded, "that the future depends on it."

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