Sunday, May 05, 2013

Tom Wheeler, Historian at the FCC's Helm

Tom Wheeler, President Obama's nominee to be the next FCC Chairman, has lots of experience in the communications policy arena. Some have suggested his long ago leadership of NCTA (the trade association for cable companies) and of CTIA (the trade association for wireless companies) somehow should be disqualifying on the theory he has been a "lobbyist." In my view, however, the knowledge he gained in these positions ought to be a plus. 
And Mr. Wheeler's more recent experience investing in communications, Internet, and high-tech companies with Core Capital Partners should be useful as well. 
But what intrigues me more, at least today, about Mr. Wheeler is his avocation as a historian, and a serious one at that. 
Yes, a historian,with a particular interest in Abraham Lincoln and the Civil War. It is possible that Mr. Wheeler's appreciation for history's sweep could be as helpful to the new FCC Chairman as his experience in the communications policy field. 
In the following sense, I mean. 
Tom Wheeler's book, Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War, was published in 2006. Michael Beschloss, one of my favorite historians, had this to say about the book: "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails is a fascinating, succinct, and original history of how a great President used cutting-edge technology to save his country." 
Telegrams as a"cutting edge technology?" In 1844, Samuel F.B. Morse sent the first telegram in the U.S. from Washington to Baltimore, exclaiming: "What hath God wrought?" It was a fitting exclamation for the so-called cutting-edge technology of the day. 
And, as we learn from Tom Wheeler's interesting book, the telegraph – now surely a historical relic – was key to preserving the Union. In contrast, in Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails, Mr. Wheeler relates in the very first paragraph how he realized the Iraq war was the first "war by e-mail." 
From T-Mails to Gmails, not to mention to Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, and all the myriad data, voice and video services that comprise what today we call the "Internet ecosystem." The difference between the days of the telegraph and the telephone, and Western Union and Ma Bell – entities that possessed monopolistic power in their heyday – and today's multi-platform and multi-screen broadband Internet environment is akin to the difference between carrier pigeons and rocket ships. 
What might Samuel Morse exclaim now if only he could behold "cable" operators,"telephone" companies, wireless and mobile carriers, online Internet video purveyors, fiber optic providers like Google and GigU, satellite operators, and others, all competing against one another in an attempt to meet rapidly evolving consumer demand for high-speed broadband services.  
I suspect a historian like Tom Wheeler, more than most of us, will appreciate the import of the dramatic technological and marketplace change from T-Mails to Gmails. And perhaps a historian, especially one with telecom policy experience, will appreciate that, in light of these remarkable marketplace changes, our nation's communications policies should reflect today's competitive digital realities, rather than the realities of last century's monopolistic environment. 
At least I hope Mr. Wheeler will bring such appreciation to the job of leading the FCC. 
In his Second Message to Congress in 1862, President Lincoln uttered these immortal words: "The dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present.The occasion is piled high with difficulty, and we must rise with the occasion.As our case is new, we must think anew, and we act anew." 
I do not wish fora moment to be misunderstood as equating the challenges that President Lincoln confronted with those confronting Tom Wheeler when he becomes Chairman of the FCC. Of course they are not. 
But it does not seem out of place to suggest that Mr. Wheeler, a Lincoln scholar and someone who has observed closely the dramatic changes in the increasingly competitive communications marketplace, may well draw inspiration from Mr. Lincoln's injunction to jettison past dogmas, and to think anew, and to act anew. 
Certainly the FCC could benefit from ridding itself of outdated regulatory dogmas developed in a bygone monopolistic era, and from thinking and acting anew.