FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler Outlines Pillars for Policy Making

By Peter Bernstein February 06, 2014

The National Journal held a fascinating event in Washington, D.C., on February 6, titled “Dialing In on the IP Transition.” The topic is certainly a hot one on all fronts—tech vendors, customers and policy makers in the U.S. at all levels of government.  In fact, punctuating just how important this transition is to all stakeholders, FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler not only was the keynote speaker for the event, but in a fireside chat session with former FCC Chief Counsel Bruce Gottlieb he went into some detail about his views on the role of the FCC and what he hopes to accomplish.

In many ways it was the equivalent of a communications state of the union address. As Chairman Wheeler, in remarks that were part history lesson (he is a polished historian), part policy-making roadmap and part call to action, took the opportunity of a packed house and a broad audience via a live stream (which ironically had technical difficulties), laid out the guiding principles he is looking to follow during his tenure.

“Network compact,” competition, innovation and speed pillars for success

As Wheeler sees it, the pillars for success are encompassed in making sure we get the IP transition right. This means:

  • Assuring that what he calls the “network compact”—what in essence is a social contract between customers and service providers that are contained in the values of universal and affordable access that date all the way back to the Communications Act of 1934—are carried forward into the brave new IP world ahead.
  • Creating an environment that leverages the value of IP networking to encourage competition a, rewards innovation, and gives innovators a chance to quickly trial their ingenuity with regulation getting in the way.
  • A policy making environment where the role of government is to be an accelerant rather than a drag on the speed in which everyone must operate in the Internet era.

Wheeler kept coming back to each of these points during his remarks and during the Q&A, and with good reason.

First, it was illuminating to hear Wheelers historical overview as context for what happens next. He marched the audience through the technologic progress from the circuit-switched world which he said, Alexander Graham Bell would recognize” and why packet networks with IP as their “lingua franca”  are the future because they create choices, enable new services and business models, and are operationally more efficient by several orders of magnitude.

Where he was most passionate was in saying that in previous technology revolutions the deliverable of the foundational technology was ancillary. He cited as an example the advent railroads driving the Industrial Revolution because trains could deliver coal to dispersed places enabling the blossoming of manufacturing and the birth of logistics.  He noted that what is different with the Internet is that in information economy the hauling of that information is the economy.  It is not ancillary.

With this in mind, at a very high level, he sees the role of the FCC to make sure that nothing stands in the way of the U.S. remaining a dominant player in the information economy. Digital supremacy is directly correlated to economic vitality, and to not assure this, “Will have dire economic consequences,” he noted.

Using several questions the Chairman continued to amplify on his pillars for success. He noted that the role of the FCC should no longer be to dictate but rather to enable companies to move fast. As I have stated in numerous postings, we live in “The Age of Acceleration” where the only constants are change and the speed at which change is increasing.  This need for speed in fact, is at the core of the Wheeler regulatory philosophy going forward. 

As Wheeler sees it, regulators have social and economic responsibilities to enable affordable universal access to broadband. They also have responsibilities to protect consumer as well as industry interests as we transition under the values of that “network compact.” He noted, that not everything from the old regulatory world can or should be ported into the IP world, but core values cannot and should not be compromised.

As an industry veteran, whose last few years were as an investor in innovative new capabilities he is sensitive to the need for speed, which is why he is an unabashed supporter for competition. But, as a regulator he wants to knock down obstacles that slow things down while using a more flexible approach that encourage trials to allow entities to test ideas, and for the FCC to get hard numbers as to what can make sense in terms of its stewardship of scarce national resources and its obligations make choice and a level playing field optimum to spur growth.

The question that raised one of the more interesting answers was one about how success might be judged 20 years from now when people look back at his time as head of the Commission. He stated that if he cannot get consumers and the industry to the other side of the IP transition the Commission will have failed.  Examples of what he meant by this included: If we do not contain network compact values; if  in the transition to IP somehow E-991 is not universal and accurate; if we go to slow and allow regulatory lag to put the U.S. at a disadvantage to globally; and if we do not expand choices and protect consumer rights based on expediency to industry interests. 

The vision is clear, whether congress and commercial interests react is ways that foster it, remains the big if, obviously. Chairman Wheeler said something that hopefully is a phrase that becomes popular with those who are his partners in crafting the future, when he said, “What makes this network revolution different is its essentiality to the growth of the nation.”  

The call to action mentioned above was when Wheeler said; “Speed is critical for economy. We can’t sit back. We all have to look how do we do our job.  How we make sure growth engine of the economy is fully stoked.”  The historian pointed to the first 100 days in office of President Franklin Roosevelt when because of a sense of urgency created by the Great Depression much of the New Deal was enacted. He noted that he was a little past 70 days, and that this should not be taken as a real comparison, but that all stakeholders need to recognize we are at a tipping point, and lack of action or purposely putting up obstacles should not be an alternative.  Information is the economy and there is too much at stake to not move fast. The IP transition from a technology perspective is already underway. Whether policy makers have the sense of urgency and will to optimize it is a chapter that hopefully gets written sooner rather than later.  The U.S. can’t afford as Wheeler stated, to sit back.

Edited by Cassandra Tucker
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