FCC Leadership Positions Filled as Senate Confirms Wheeler and O'Rielly

By Peter Bernstein October 30, 2013

Back in May when President Obama nominated Tom Wheeler to be the new Chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), I wrote an article saying why my former colleague was the right person, at the right time, for the job. I also noted that given the gridlock in Washington, D.C., the confirmation process was likely to be bumpy, but that ultimately, because there was an open commissioner’s spot for a Republican, the Senate would use the opportunity for there being a twofer and that confirmation would occur.

Like good wine which takes time to mature, the political process finally has concluded with Wheeler being confirmed as the next Chairman and Michael O’Rielly being confirmed to take the Republican seat.

New FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler (Image via Google)

Following a private meeting with Senator Ted Cruz (R. TX), who had put a hold on Wheeler’s confirmation, pending clarification of concerns he had over the FCC using it powers over political advertising to disclose contributor names of advocacy groups which the Senator believed went beyond the Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling, and Senator Lindsey Graham (R.GA) removing his objections to the Senate confirming any nominee for any position until he had better answers on what happen during the attack on the U.S. Mission in Benghazi, Libya, the confirmations became almost a non-event.

Despite all of the political theatrics, now comes the hard part. Wheeler’s skills at reaching workable solutions, which I saw first hand when he was the head of the cable industry and the cellular industry trade associations, will certainly come in handy. All of the industries the FCC regulates are at tipping points, and the Commission’s decisions in the next few years will have profound impacts on industry structure and how we consume and pay for information services for many years to come.

The list of challenges is almost unprecedented. They include such headline items as:

  • Restructuring the spectrum incentive auctions
  • Net neutrality
  • Privacy concerns on both the national security and commercial fronts
  • The death of the public switched telephone network (PSTN) and what to do about the future of universal service and the regulation of things like VoIP
  • State-Federal issues over regulatory jurisdiction
  • Rulings on what mergers and acquisitions make sense in a dynamically changing world

And, that is just the short list. The real list of major challenges is very long and with very passionate interests on all sides waiting in the wings to weigh in to protect their businesses. With true convergence of the TV, cable, Internet and telecom industries actually happening, blurring the lines as to who should be regulated and under what conditions, it easy to see the stakes are enormous. 

Wheeler, O’Rielly and their colleagues are going to be not just under an intense microscope from the industry and Congress, but also under pressure to act quickly. Realities are that markets, including consumer expectations, are moving fast and the speed of change is accelerating. Regulatory lag is seen as an impediment to innovation. 

As Wheeler and O’Rielly indicated during their confirmation hearings, clearly assuring that the U.S. does not fall behind other developed countries and has the infrastructure and regulatory framework to compete going forward is priority number one. The devil, as always, will be in the details. The good news is that the U.S. now has an FCC that has all of its leadership positions in place, and can move on crafting a regulatory regime that is practical and flexible to meet the issues of today while positioning the industry for what lies ahead.

Fasten your seat belts. This is going to be an exciting few months. It is good to know that capable hands with good heads and a wealth of experience to draw on are finally at the helm.   

Edited by Stefania Viscusi
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