Abe Lincoln and the Return of the Jedi -- Without the Ewoks

Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler was in Boulder, Colorado, this week to deliver the third installment in his opening trilogy of speeches on his governing approach. (You’ll recall The Columbus Compact, the first speech, delivered at Ohio State University.) “Think of it as Return of the Jedi, without the Ewoks,” he joked. Although much of the coverage of the speech focused on network neutrality, the takeaway quote from this address comes from President Abraham Lincoln’s Second Annual Message to Congress: “As our case is new, so we must think anew, and ACT anew.”

First, Chairman Wheeler explained why our case is new. “With widespread deployment of digital technology and high-speed broadband networks, wired and wireless have led us to an environment we could not have imagined when our communications laws were written. This undoubtedly is true for the 1934 Communications Act, but it also is true even for the significant amendments that have been enacted in the last two decades. When Congress passed the Telecommunications Act of 1996, it did not foresee the rise of broadband and how central to our lives high-speed Internet access and services would become."

By way of example, Chairman Wheeler offered this: In 1996, the world’s fastest supercomputer cost $55 million to develop and was roughly the size of a tennis court. Just 9 years later, Sony’s PlayStation 3 surpassed the performance of 1996’s most powerful supercomputer. Just to add to Wheeler’s thought… far from the size of a tennis court, the PlayStation 3 fit comfortably into 80 million living rooms by 2013. And when the PS3 system was first released, Sony also launched PSNSM, an online multi-player gaming and digital entertainment service, which now operates in 59 countries around the world with more than 150 million cumulative registered accounts. As Chairman Wheeler noted in The Second Machine Age, MIT’s Erik Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee argue that we are only just now reaching an inflection point with computing speeds, the amount of information available, and the ability to combine new ideas and capabilities. For all the ways the computing revolution has already changed our world, the really big breakthroughs still lay ahead.

So we’ve come a long way from 1996, baby.

These developments, Wheeler argues, mean we must think anew. How can we best tackle the challenges and seize the opportunities of new technologies? Do our laws need to be updated to reflect this new landscape? If yes, how?

Chairman Wheeler commended the House Commerce Committee’s Republican leadership for beginning a discussion about modernizing the Communications Act, calling the effort “warranted and necessary.” We’ve all observed, Wheeler said, “the growing obsolescence of the Communications Act’s categories -- principally the titles that address common carriage, broadcasting, and cable.”

As policymakers consider a rewrite of U.S. communications law, Wheeler stressed one “high-level point”: the FCC must retain authority to interpret the law to meet contemporary circumstances. Because in an age of rapid development, like the one we’re currently in and will be in for the foreseeable future, once a new law is signed, it is out of date. So the law must enable an expert agency to be “as nimble as the innovators redefining technology and redrawing the marketplace.”

Finally, the Chairman said we must act anew -- and, by that, he was saying we must act anew NOW. “We can’t just kick the can down the road. We have an obligation to act now with the principles that have been transmitted to us in the form of statutes, judicial and regulatory precedents, scholarship, and experience.” Although the world may change, certain values are as critical as ever:

The Network Compact -- universal accessibility, interconnection, public safety, and consumer protection -- constitutes the things we have to promote and protect if we are to be faithful to the public interest imperative. When being offline in America means being unable to participate fully in our economy and our society, it is imperative that the Commission work to ensure that every American has access to affordable broadband. An opportunity economy requires an opportunity network.

Chairman Wheeler then highlighted a handful (oh, what a handful) of issues that must be addressed, that cannot wait on a rewrite of communications law that could take many years:

The IP Transition: ensuring that investment flows not to outdated phone networks, but to the fiber-optic networks of tomorrow, while consumers and competition are protected.
Network Neutrality: The FCC will soon outline how it will proceed to preserve a free and open Internet. [Note: Philip J. Weiser, the event's host and Dean of the University of Colorado Law School, said he felt Chairman Wheeler views the recent appeals court ruling on net neutrality as a positive development in that it provides the FCC with the freedom to act nimbly and effectively. "It sounds like this case is not going to go to the Supreme Court," Weiser said.]
Incentive Auctions: Although Wheeler just touched upon them, the FCC is faced with designing a voluntary, market-based means of repurposing spectrum by encouraging broadcast television licensees to voluntarily relinquish spectrum usage rights in exchange for a share of the proceeds from an auction of new licenses to use the repurposed spectrum.

Chairman Wheeler concluded by again quoting President Lincoln saying, “We cannot escape history… We will be remembered in spite of ourselves.” Given history’s ultimate judgment, Wheeler said he chooses to actively meet the challenges before us: “I’m here today to say as long as I am Chairman of the FCC, we WILL act anew. I am committed to transparent, inclusive processes, and our actions will be driven by the facts and the data. And on all major issues, we will act when the record warrants and the public interest demands,” he said.

As the telecommunications world waits with bated breathe for Chairman Wheeler's next move(s), we'll bring you all the coverage -- and see you in the Headlines.

Additional coverage of the speech:

By Kevin Taglang.