President Obama announce Wheeler nomination (White House photo)

Tom Wheeler and the FCC: The Challenges Ahead

President Obama announces the nomination of Thomas Wheeler (right)

Thomas Wheeler has been influencing  communications policy in Washington for a long time, but always from the sidelines. He ran what was then the National Cable Television Association and then the Cellular Telephone Industry Association until he was driven out in House Majority Leader Tom De Lay’s purge of Democrats at trade associations. He was a top advisor for Vice President Al Gore and a key member of President Obama’s 2008 transition team. Now he is about to move to center stage as Obama’s pick to head the Federal Communications Commission.

If you want to get a sense of the trouble the FCC has had adjusting to the new era of communications technology, just try to find something on its web site. Its biggest problem is that its most important activities are covered by the 1996 Telecommunications Act, a seriously flawed law when it was written and one that has not aged at all well. Every time the FCC has tried to push the boundaries of the law, whatever party didn’t like the result sued and, most of the time, won. Yet, there is little hope for new legislation from a Congress that cannot seem to do anything (though the Senate is likely to confirm Wheeler, who has bipartisan backing, without too much trouble.)

In this terrible political and legal environment, the FCC faces two enormous challenges over the next few years. One is finding enough wireless capacity to satisfy the rapidly growing demand for wireless data. The low-hanging fruit has all been picked and the painful progress of incentive auctions to free TV spectrum shows how difficult it will be to reassign chunks of airwaves. The FCCwill have to persuade spectrum holders, many of the civilian or military government agencies, to share nicely and will have to promote the technologies needed to make spectrum sharing work.

The FCC must also grapple with the dull, complex, and extremely important issue of how to retire the nation’s public switched telephone network. This network, a relic of the old monopoly Bell System today operated mostly by Verizon Communications and AT&T, is an engineering marvel that has outlived its usefulness. AT&T has gotten the ball rolling by petitioning the FCC to replace traditional PSTN service with internet-based IP telephony. But a business and regulatory structure built up over the past 125 years, with many billions invested, is not so easily disassembled. A huge part of the regulatory structure that governs communications is based on the PSTN, and even as telephony moves to wireless and IP-based communications, we depend on the old networks in many ways. It’s a system that was built with deep government involvement and the government will have to be deeply involved in its retirement.

Wheeler looks like a good choice to lead the FCC during this difficult period. He combines solid technical knowledge of the issues with the political skills that has often been lacking in FCC commissioners. The fact that his nomination has won praise from sources as disparate as top AT&T lobbyist Jim Cicconi and Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld suggests that he at least starts with a reservoir of good will, though it probably won;t survive his first major decision.


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Steve Wildstrom

Steve Wildstrom is veteran technology reporter, writer, and analyst based in the Washington, D.C. area. He created and wrote BusinessWeek’s Technology & You column for 15 years. Since leaving BusinessWeek in the fall of 2009, he has written his own blog, Wildstrom on Tech and has contributed to corporate blogs, including those of Cisco and AMD and also consults for major technology companies.

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