By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
CES 2014 Las Vegas - Facing a daunting array of issues from spectrum auctions, net neutrality, the IP transition, a re-writing of the 1996 Telecommunications Act, unlicensed spectrum, cellphone use on airplanes and even his favorite historical figure, new Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler laid out his agenda during a one-on-one talk with Consumer Electronics Association president/CEO Gary Shapiro.
Wheeler took over the reins of the FCC in early November after a six-month lag between his nomination and Senate confirmation. One of the oldest-ever FCC heads, Wheeler also is one of the most steeped and active in forming communications policy: He led the National Cable Television Association (NCTA) from 1976 to 1984, then the Cellular Telecommunications & Internet Association (CTIA) from 1992 to 2004, during which time he helped draft the aforementioned telecommunications act. "This isn't my first rodeo," Wheeler quipped.
Overall, Wheeler repeatedly stressed his assertion that "we are pro innovation and pro competition, and we want to protect both."
Wheeler and Shapiro spend nearly the entire first half of their hour-long confab on the three pending spectrum auctions, the first since 2008: the H-block auction on Jan. 22; a combination of industrial and government spectrum on the mid-1700 and low-2100 bands this fall; and the complex so-called "incentive auction," which entails the FCC first buying stray spectrum from a variety of sources before auctioning it, in mid-2015, which could affect the 6MHz slices employed by TV broadcasters.
"I think there's never been a more risk-free opportunity for an incumbent service provider to morph into the new digital reality than the spectrum incentive auction," opined Wheeler, who laid out a number of such opportunities for broadcasters, including spectrum sharing. "I hope the broadcasters will begin to see that."
Wheeler will have an even finer line to balance on the issue of open Internet and so-called net neutrality. The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals is due to hand down a ruling on Verizon v. FCC, which could throw a monkey wrench into how the FCC adjudicates oversight and control demands from both wireline and wireless Internet providers.
Without getting into specifics concerning the pending judgment — in fact, seemingly refusing to get into any specifics on the topic — Wheeler noted, "We are ready and willing, and have the legal jurisdiction, to intervene" where the open Internet is threatened. But Wheeler did not address what FCC authority would be left with without specific authorization act from Congress if the court, as expected, rules for Verizon.
Wheeler is more active in extending President Obama's goal of providing broadband connectivity to all of America's schools, and shepherding a complete analog-to-IP transition.
"IP has incredible advantages," Wheeler noted. "But as you move out of that former analog circuit-switched environment to all IP, there are going to be effects. The question becomes, how do you ensure that the transition to the new technologies maintains what consumers always had a right to expect from the Network Compact?"
Wheeler noted the FCC will start accepting trial proposals from individual companies concerning the IP switch in May.
Concerning a potential rewrite of the nearly 20-year-old 1996 Telecommunications Act in which, Wheeler noted, "the Internet as mentioned, like, once, and digital concepts were kind of vague," Wheeler didn't feel the need was as acute as the other issues facing the agency. "The current act has ample authority for the FCC to exercise its role, even in this new digital environment," he observed.
Noting the FCC issued a notice for comment for elimination of the rules concerning the use of cellphones on airplanes, Wheeler stressed FCC rulings would be based on non-technical considerations. "The end result of all this will be that you don't have to listen person yapping at 35,000 feet, but you can text, you can send email, you can surf the web."
And Wheeler's favorite historical figure? Abraham Lincoln, the only president to hold a patent, who exploited the dual disruption technologies of the railroad and the telegraph, and whom Wheeler called "our first online president." He should know: Wheeler wrote a book on the man and the topic, "Mr. Lincoln's T-Mails: The Untold Story of How Abraham Lincoln Used the Telegraph to Win the Civil War" (HarperCollins, 2006).
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