Tom Wheeler and the Future of America's Economy

Benton readers know that predicting who gets picked for leadership spots in Washington is a parlor game of high art. For some time now, the game has included predicting who the next chairman of the Federal Communications Commission will be. We’ve reported on the speculation in these pages earlier this year. But, more importantly, former FCC Commissioner Michael Copps wrote here that more meaningful than “who”, perhaps, are the priorities the President and a new FCC chair set.

On May 1, President Barack Obama announced his intention to nominate Tom Wheeler to be the next chairman of the FCC. The FCC has been led for four years by Julius Genachowski who is leaving the commission in mid-May. Wheeler’s confirmation could take some time; President Obama tapped current FCC Commissioner Mignon Clyburn to serve as Interim Chairman until the Senate confirms Wheeler. Commissioner Clyburn will become the first woman to lead the FCC in its (nearly) 80 year history.

President Obama did not announce his choice for the FCC in a simple press release, but at an event at the White House. Was there a hint of the President’s priorities? He said the mission for Clyburn and Wheeler is “giving businesses and workers the tools they need to compete in the 21st century economy, and making sure we’re staying at the cutting edge of an industry that again and again we’ve revolutionized here in America. And as technology continues to shape the way that we do business and communicate and transform the world, we want to make sure that it’s American ingenuity, American innovation, and that we’re setting up legal structures and regulatory structures that facilitate this continued growth and expansion that can create good jobs and continue to grow our economy.”

The President also highlighted two of the top priorities of outgoing-Chairman Genachowski’s: “Making high-speed Internet available everywhere, and keeping it open to everyone.” He congratulated Chairman Genachowski on making “extraordinary progress on both fronts”: helping millions more Americans connect to high-speed Internet, unleashing the airwaves to support the latest in mobile technology, and protecting the Internet as an open platform for innovation and free speech. “And we’re poised to do even more,” the President said.

Innovation, economic expansion, universal broadband, mobility, an open Internet… what’s not to like, right?

Well, industry observers are still stuck on the “who”. Who is Tom Wheeler? Here’s how the President described his qualifications: “Tom is the only member of both the cable television and the wireless industry hall of fame. So he’s like the Jim Brown of telecom, or the Bo Jackson of telecom. And that’s because for more than 30 years, Tom has been at the forefront of some of the very dramatic changes that we’ve seen in the way we communicate and how we live our lives. He was one of the leaders of a company that helped create thousands of good, high-tech jobs. He’s in charge of the group that advises the FCC on the latest technology issues. He’s helped give American consumers more choices and better products. So Tom knows this stuff inside and out. And I think Julius will attest to that because Julius has benefitted frequently from Tom’s input and advice.”

Now there’s a good deal of worry in Washington about Tom Wheeler. Is he anti-broadcasting? The National Association of Broadcasters may be wondering. Would he have approved the AT&T/T-Mobile merger that the FCC and the Department of Justice blocked as the Wall Street Journal indicated? [Public Knowledge’s Harold Feld looks closely at that claim here] With his previous positions lobbying for cable and the wireless industries, is Senate Commerce Committee Chairman Jay Rockefeller (D-WV) justified to say, “A lobbyist is a lobbyist”? [Note: Chairman Rockefeller, who will oversee Wheeler's nomination, had his own preference for FCC chair and Wheeler wasn't it. He preferred his former staffer and current FCC Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel]

Harold Feld offers sobering analysis of Wheeler as lobbyist:

“It's been ten years since Wheeler left CTIA, longer than that since he left NTCA. Had he really been interested in advancing the agendas of these industries, he was in an excellent position to do so when he headed up the Obama transition team. He did not. Indeed, Susan Crawford and Kevin Werbach, long-time stalwarts of the public interest who worked for Wheeler on the transition team, have joined other public interest luminaries as Wheelers strongest public supporters. Had Wheeler been working behind the scenes in the transition to promote the incumbents, I expect Susan and Kevin would have known.”

We might also look at Wheeler’s most-recent public work. In a statement released May 1, Chairman Genachowski picked up on the President’s remarks: “I was pleased to appoint Tom as Chairman of the FCC’s Technological Advisory Council in 2010, and under his leadership the TAC has made strong contributions to the FCC’s work, including on unleashing spectrum for mobile, removing barriers to private investment, and strengthening our cyber security. At this exciting time in this important sector, I can attest to Tom’s commitment to harness the power of communications technology to improve people’s lives, to drive our global competitiveness, and to advance the public interest. The FCC’s role has never been more essential, and with Tom’s deep policy expertise and his first-hand experience as a technology investor, he is a superb choice to advance the FCC’s mission of promoting innovation, investment, competition, and consumer protection.”

The FCC’s TAC, back in 2010, was charged with answering several questions:

  • What are the innovations that are down the road that the Commission must anticipate now?
  • What is the IP world delivering with unprecedented speed and how does the FCC encourage, not inhibit those developments to translate into investment and jobs?
  • As the technology agency of the government, how can the FCC utilize its voice, especially in the short term, to bring these innovations to bear quickly in a variety of areas (health, energy, public safety, transportation, and others)?

On April 22, 2011, the TAC submitted to Chairman Genachowski a Technological Advisory Council Chairman’s Report that included eight recommendations based on the working groups efforts for near-term opportunities for promoting innovation, competition, and job creation in the technology sector. The report noted that each recommendation is an opportunity for the FCC to unleash new private sector innovation and job creation, without working through traditional regulatory processes. By acting on these recommendations, the TAC stated that the FCC can promote competition, foster industry best practices, and encourage executive action in order to help innovators, small businesses, and local governments pursue new economic development and job growth.

The eight recommendations are:

  1. Municipal Race-to-the-Top program. The FCC should sponsor a Race-to-the-Top-style awards/recognition program to identify a list of cities with the best practices in terms of broadband infrastructure deployment. The “Broadband City USA” contest could provide top rankings for cities and towns based on being the most broadband-friendly in terms of infrastructure planning, accommodation, and permitting/approvals processes. Cities and towns would have an incentive to compete for this designation, making it a tool to further new investment and economic development. The FCC could also use this program as an opportunity to highlight a host of best identified practices for broadband infrastructure deployment, including model city “rights of way” codes.
  2. Broadband Infrastructure Executive Order. The FCC should formally request that the President issue an Executive Order on broadband infrastructure deployment on federal land and in federal buildings. The Executive Order would mandate the following for Federal rights of way and antenna siting approvals:
    • Single document format for permitting
    • Single federal agency to coordinate the permit approval process
    • Sixty day time frame for approvals

    Such an Executive Order would place the Federal government in a position to advance network deployment and resiliency in communities with Federal buildings, especially urban areas where network congestion is most acute. In addition, this Executive Order could advance the development of micro cells, distributed antenna systems (DAS), and other innovative broadband infrastructure, demonstrating a path for growth in this market.

  3. Advocacy for Rapid Tower Siting. The FCC should propose that states and municipalities employ a shortened “shot clock” for co-locations on existing structures or permit co-location “by right” - absent special circumstances. The TAC has identified several impediments to tower siting processes which could be overcome through updates to state and local procedures, including:
    • Inconsistent and non-concurrent time frames for environmental assessments
    • Redundant requirements for co-location applications
    • Repetitive rejection of incomplete applications without identification of deficiencies

    Expediting the process for tower siting could have an important impact on the development of local broadband access in communities, boosting their marketability to new employers and network access for local entrepreneurs. If states and municipalities do not agree to expedite co-location approvals, the Commission should express its willingness to proceed with a new, shorter “shot clock” rule for co-locations.

  4. Best Practices/Technology Outreach to State and Local Governments. The FCC should begin a dialogue with states and municipalities about proven new technologies for efficiently deploying broadband (e.g., micro-trenching, DAS equipment on city light poles, directional boring). The Commission should host a “road show” or series of workshops highlighting best identified practices with new technologies. This road show, in combination with leadership on the federal level through the Executive Order, can help accelerate the development of this new market for network infrastructure.
  5. Model an Online Deployment Coordination System. The TAC believes that timely access to underground facilities has a direct bearing on infrastructure costs and deployment. The FCC should develop a “white label,” web-based communication tool that can be adopted and labeled as their own by localities to provide advance notification of planned infrastructure projects. Such a web-based capacity would allow all those who must excavate rights-of-way to coordinate openings (i.e., “dig once”) and thus speed deployment and reduce costs and civic disruption. Any state or municipality could voluntarily use the FCC model to implement its own “reverse one-call” system to provide notification of new infrastructure projects.
  6. New Metrics to Measure Broadband Network Quality. The TAC believes that, for some usage models, developing metrics beyond throughput speed to measure the quality of Internet Protocol (IP) broadband networks is important for helping the IP ecosystem flourish by enabling "extended" quality standards that can support the subset of applications that require not only fast, but precise, timely and reliable broadband networks. Simply measuring broadband networks by throughput speed does not provide a full picture nor set sufficient performance parameters to support uses with "extended" quality requirements such as healthcare monitoring, emergency services, alarms, etc. Although network services that meet such extended criteria may not be offered by all service providers, or included in all service plans, it would be beneficial to have common metrics for them. Additionally, in transitioning to IP based networks the TAC will be identifying how reliability can be characterized in a multi-modal environment -where reliability is provided by having many alternate paths, means and/or modes of communications. The FCC should initiate the steps necessary for determining how this aspect of the transition will impact the basic architecture of emergency services.
  7. Highlight Stranded PSTN Investments. Network providers have huge investments in existing PSTN infrastructure including copper wire, switches, pole space, and software. Although new information services are designed for IP networks, many homes and businesses still use devices that depend on specific characteristics of the PSTN (e.g., auto-dialers, alarm systems, ATMs, PoS terminals). These services and devices will have to be replaced and the accompanying construction and inspection "codes" revised. The TAC will be creating an inventory of such services. We would recommend that the FCC highlight this concern and initiate a public dialogue so that the technology and know-how for replacing such services is widely disseminated.
  8. Promote Small Cell Deployment. Small cell deployments have the ability to greatly increase spectral efficiency to meet demands of increasing teledensity. The FCC, with the participation of other relevant agencies (e.g., General Services Administration) should convene an industry-led group (e.g., providers, vendors, standards groups, and building owners) to discuss ways to accelerate the deployment of small cell wireless devices (i.e., femtocells, DAS, Wi-Fi) in commercial and government buildings and other high teledensity venues. Accelerating this deployment would meet growing market demand for mobile broadband in dense, urban areas and potentially create new employment for design, installation, and operation of wireless systems. Two ideas in particular that should be explored: (1) development of “universal architectures” for picocells, femtocells, etc., perhaps leveraging convergence around LTE, so that multiple providers using multiple spectrum bands could be served from a single device; and (2) creation of a new “small cell band” spectrum allocation, conceptually a hybrid between licensed and unlicensed spectrum, in which property owners and/or mobile broadband providers would have the ability to freely deploy networks to offload broadband services from other networks with assurances of interference protection from neighboring users.

It is in these eight recommendations and in the President’s stated priorities that we might glean Chairman Wheeler’s agenda and preferred processes. As the Wheeler nomination moves forward, we keep in mind the sage advice of Michael Copps:

“Our focus should not be on rehashing rumors from the gossip mill. It should be laser-beam attention to obtaining clear public policy commitments, from both the Administration and the eventual FCC nominee, on a priority list of telecommunications and media challenges that confront the nation…. I want to know before the next FCC Chair bangs down the gavel for the first time that she or he actually intends to move a proactive public interest agenda. I want to know that she or he really ‘gets it’ that our present news and information ecosystem has been harmfully diminished by years of hyper-consolidation and an almost equally long period of public policy abdication of critical public interest oversight responsibilities…. is perfectly legitimate—and I would argue essential—to obtain these public interest commitments now, before any nomination for FCC chair moves forward.”

We’ve seen lots of coverage of the nomination and reaction to it. Instead of trying to squeeze it all above, we offer links below. We’re likely to see lots more as the nomination moves (slowly) forward and we’ll share what we learn every step of the way. And, in the meantime, we’ll see you in the Headlines.

For more on the Wheeler Nomination:
Meet Tom Wheeler, the man who could control your digital life (The Verge)
Six Revealing Quotes From Obama’s New FCC Nominee, Tom Wheeler (National Journal)
FCC Chairman Nominee Wheeler in His Own Words
Groups Already Weighing In on Wheeler Chairmanship (Broadcasting & Cable 4/30/2013)
Obama’s FCC Pick Has Some Surprising Allies (nextgov)
Sen. Bernie Sanders 'troubled' by FCC pick's lobbying past (The Hill)
Uh-oh: AT&T and Comcast are ecstatic about the FCC’s new chairman (Ars Technica)
A Roundup of Reaction to FCC Pick (Benton Foundation)

Editor’s Note: In the spirit of full disclosure, here’s how Benton Foundation Chairman Charles Benton reacted to the announced changes in FCC leadership:
Too many people in the U.S. – including people of color, people living in rural areas, seniors, people with disabilities and people with low-incomes – are not yet participating fully in America’s economic, civic, and cultural life because they are not able to adopt the communications tools many of us take for granted. The Benton Foundation congratulates the Federal Communications Commission’s new leadership and looks forward to working with them to help bridge this unfortunate and costly divide. We believe that the important industries regulated by the FCC play a vital role in improving the country’s economy and quality of life. The Benton Foundation will continue to advocate for affordable broadband access for all, diversity of voices in media, and pragmatic communications-related policies that favor the public interest over the special interest.

By Kevin Taglang.