On July 30, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee voted to approve the nomination of Tom Wheeler to be Chairman of the FCC. The nomination was the subject of a June 18 hearing, which came just a few days after the Free State Foundation's "If I Were the FCC Chairman" lunch seminar. Of course, Mr. Wheeler's name figured into the FSF seminar panelists' discussion of what they would do if they happened to be the new FCC Chairman.
The FSF seminar panelists offered some distinct yet insightful perspectives on understanding the dynamics of technological change, policy imperatives for the new FCC Chairman, and the characteristics that Mr. Wheeler might bring to the agency. Their views are worth considering as the nomination process proceeds to the full Senate.
On the seminar panel were Gail MacKinnon, Executive Vice President and Chief Government Relations Officer, Time Warner Cable; Craig Silliman, Senior Vice President for Public Policy & Government Affairs, Verizon Communications; and Gigi B. Sohn, President & CEO, Public Knowledge. Their exchange, taken from an edited transcript of the event, follows below.
FSF President Randolph May, moderator for the seminar panel, prefaced the ensuing discussion by pointing to his May 9 Washington Times op-ed:
MAY: I wrote this piece called "A Historian for the FCC." It basically looked at Tom Wheeler's avocation as a historian. As you know, one of his books focused on the role the telegraph played in winning the Civil War. And essentially I was making a point that I hope he would look at history and realize we're a long way from the telegraph and some other things…. So one of the questions I'm going to ask these panelists later, probably, would be to put on their historian's hat and, with that in mind, think about the way that they would frame their administration if they were the chairman.
A bit later on, the panel turned to the subject of the FCC Chairman nominee:
MAY: I want the panelists briefly to describe what character traits they think a new chairman should have, what's important for success for the new chairman in terms of the way he operates the Commission and the character traits he brings to that.
[W]e know that Tom Wheeler's a historian. That's something that's been an important part of his life. Is there anything in terms of the way that you think he should, as a historian, think about the job and that you would share with us?
The seminar panelists' responses:
MACKINNON: Being a historian is a real asset, because as one senior entertainment executive once said to me, "It's the history you don't know that will kill you." Tom Wheeler's been around for a long time. He is somebody who knows how business works and he's a very thoughtful, deliberative human being. I don't know him, personally, but what I've been told is he's open-minded and collaborative. Those are very essential characteristics for somebody who is coming over and presiding over the industry, looking at industry on a daily basis.
SILLIMAN: It would be presumptuous for me to speculate on how people think about the job and how Tom Wheeler will do. But the scope of history is an interesting question for our industry that has a couple of angles.
One is that communications technologies throughout the scope of history have served an empowering, enabling role, for people to spread and disseminate ideas, to open up their horizons to people beyond their direct physical proximity. That spread of ideas has unleashed a whole round of human innovation, freedom, and other empowerment. It's tremendously exciting.
The second lesson would be people sitting around ten years before Gutenberg came up with the printing press, or ten years before the development of the telegraph. People could no more foresee the technological changes that would be wrought and the societal changes that would be wrought ten years hence than we can here today.
We often feel, and rightfully so, that we are at the cutting edge of technology. And we are. But we also have to remember that the cutting edge is constantly moving out ahead of us. We are six years into the smartphone revolution. 15 to 18 years ago, if you were an early adopter and you had dial-up Internet and maybe an analog cell phone, the idea that we could foresee 10 years, 15 years out what may be coming would be the ultimate hubris. I don't think we can foresee years out now.
I think that's tremendously exciting, because we are going to see huge breakthroughs in the areas of energy management, education, healthcare. A lot more things are going to be enabled by these communications technologies. But in the policy realm what I would take from the sweep of history is: don't ever assume that standing in the static point, where we are today, that we can see out over the horizon 5, 10 years in an environment that has been characterized by this pace of technological change, either from the straight technology perspective, or the larger societal benefits perspective. When you're looking at these issues, don't make the mistake of locking yourself into today's vision of today's technology. Make sure you have a framework that will evolve at the same rate as technology.
SOHN: The FCC chair has got to be a leader, and he has to have an agenda. Within the first 30 days, he needs to get up there and say, "This is what I want to do and this is why." I've even said this to Tom Wheeler….
He also needs to pick good people; people that really know the agency, not his best friends from college or the Supreme Court, or wherever else; people that care about this stuff and people that know how to run the agency. As far as a historian is concerned, he needs to look at the history of broadcasting. He needs to look at the history of cable and see the consolidation that's taken place.
Broadcasting was first proposed to be a common carrier service, believe it or not. And Congress decided to do this public interest obligation thing, which hasn't worked out all that well. Cable also started out not that vertically integrated in the 1984 Cable Act. They were allowed to own the programming on their systems. Both of those were huge policy mistakes. And the chair needs to learn that the Internet cannot become the same thing.
The Internet is the most empowering technology we've ever seen. But if it falls under the control of just a few hands or some really bad countries, it's not going to be that. I started out 20-some-odd years ago trying to make broadcasters and cablecasters obey their public interest obligations. Having completely totally failed at that, I look to the Internet as being the solution to the problem of top-down command-and-control media. And it's got to stay that way.
For my part, I think it imperative the FCC Chairman actively takes a free market-oriented approach to communications policy. It's no secret that the communications industry is critical to our nation's prosperity. "One-sixth of the American economy can be directly linked to the industries the FCC regulates," according to Acting FCC Chairwoman Mignon Clyburn. And due to the ability of information technologies to offer new capabilities, enhance productivity, and increase efficiency, most of the remaining five-sixths of the economy can be indirectly linked to the communications industry. In light of the innovative and competitive conditions that now prevail concerning communications services, a market-based approach can better enable additional waves of creative and competitive breakthroughs than last-century's monopoly-era regulatory approach.
A free market-oriented approach to communications policy, in short form, includes the following: (1) recognition that today's rapidly-changing digital communications market has replaced the last-century, analog-era monopolistic assumptions upon which most of the FCC's regulatory apparatus is based; (2) seriousness in pursuing elimination of outdated regulations that can no longer be justified and that threaten to reduce or block further innovation and investment; (3) strong preference for technologically neutral policymaking that eschews silo treatment of different industry segments and recognizes the reality of intermodal competition between platforms; and (4) heavy presumption against new regulatory controls over dynamic products and services unless clear evidence of market failure and consumer harm can be demonstrated.
With his broad background in communications policy as well as the history of technology, Mr. Wheeler has all the intellectual tools and experience necessary to pursue a free-market approach as FCC Chairman. Of course, effectively implementing such an approach – amidst disputes over how to design spectrum license auctions, appellate litigation over network neutrality regulations, the ongoing IP transition, and questions over the future of forbearance and legacy regulations – involves successfully addressing many practical challenges.In any event, the viewpoints offered by the three panelists at FSF's "If I Were Chairman" seminar – all of whom are nationally prominent in the communications policy realm and known for their expertise regarding the FCC – were thought-provoking and stimulating. Worth keeping in mind as Mr. Wheeler's nomination moves toward a final vote by the Senate.