FCC Chairman Wheeler, Facing Auctions, Shares Regulatory Philosophy

The FCC head, during a recent speech, opened up about spectrum policy, transitioning to IP networks and protecting the Open Internet (AT&T included).

Tom Wheeler, the newest chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), shared his personal philosophy on regulation Jan. 9, during a speech at the Computer History Museum before Silicon Valley technorati (and some party-crashing hecklers).

As mobile communications increasingly factor into the lives of Americans, the rulings of the FCC have arguably never impacted us more than they do today.

Wheeler's philosophy centers on risk and economic growth.

"Risk is what Silicon Valley embraces," Wheeler said. "It is the lifeblood of innovation and investment. To eliminate risk would be to eliminate growth. But at the same time, there are some risks that are so big that they threaten to block competition and innovation, and thus block growth. Markets won't work if these risks aren't mitigated."

Wheeler focused his speech on three important topics for the FCC as it works to "respond to the kind of pernicious risk" that prevents market dynamism. Or, put another way, as it works to encourage market growth, one of the FCC's primary missions.

Working to soften some ears (though not the hecklers', who called for radiation warning labels on phones and were removed from the event) Wheeler reminded the group that he'd spent the previous decade as a venture capitalist. For the sake of discussion, he said, "Let's stipulate two things: Government isn't always as smart as it thinks it is—and neither are entrepreneurs and innovators."

Wheeler's arrival at the FCC comes as the organization readies itself for one of its most challenging tasks to date, the auctioning of wireless spectrum that television networks have agreed to sell off so that it may be repurposed by the wireless carriers; the latter are anxious for more spectrum with which to grow their 4G networks. A first auction will take place Jan. 22, followed by a major auction in the fall and another in mid-2015.

"That this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity is not hyperbole. The re-banding associated with this auction is hard enough. When it is done, the ability to do it again will be virtually nil. There will not be another round of broadcast incentive auctions," said Wheeler, emphasizing the enormity of the task and the need for the auctions to run perfectly.

Shortly after taking office, Wheeler pushed back the timeframe, to mid-2015, of the spectrum auction the carriers are most looking forward to, explaining the absolute necessity of perfecting and testing the software that will host the auction, as well as making "fact-based policy decisions in an open and transparent manner." With such decisions yet to be pinned down, the carriers have spent more than the last year presenting the FCC with letters and research papers backing their particular opinions.