In his first remarks since assuming the FCC chairman's role, Tom Wheeler actually challenged his staff to be "nimble" in executing the agency's responsibilities. That's hardly the first word that comes to mind when thinking about federal regulation.
But Wheeler is already showing signs of being willing to buck past trends. His appointment of long-time consumer advocate Gigi Sohn to the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) staff as special counsel probably sent some shivers down the spines of industry lobbyists from the cable and broadcasting industry and from big telecom players as well.
As the founder and president of Public Knowledge , Sohn has been one of the more vocal and articulate backers of open Internet concepts and has little sympathy for big commercial interests. I wouldn't be surprised if she has "Net Neutrality" discreetly tattooed on one ankle.
Sohn's appointment may be intended to alleviate the fears that Wheeler, former top lobbyist for both the wireless industries and the cable industry, is too tightly tied to commercial interests.
If Wheeler's FCC can be as nimble as he wants it to be, then this crowd has a crack at setting the regulatory agenda for many years to come by defining how rules change -- or don't -- in the transition to an all-IP network. Already there are battle lines drawn over how VoIP will be handled that could foreshadow the broader approach.
Incumbents of all stripes -- big telcos, cable companies, and wireless operators -- want less regulation in the all-IP era. That means lightening the regulatory burden for today's local network operators and choosing not to impose new rules on others.
I suspect Sohn will be asked to provide the consumer view of how these new regulatory schemes play out and what kind of protections will be required going forward. Hers won't be the only voice urging some ongoing regulation for how big ISPs behave. Competitive carriers and some Internet players will also be pushing for guarantees of protection from discrimination in how traffic is carried and how innovation reaches the market.
The complexity of the arguments to be made leave me thinking it won't be Wheeler's FCC that makes the final decisions on how the IP world will be regulated, but whoever comes next… or next… or next.
In his remarks, which you can read in his blog post here, Wheeler also called the FCC the "Optimism Agency" of the federal government. I wish I could share his optimism that his staff could achieve that goal of being nimble. But I don't.
— Carol Wilson, Editor-at-Large, Light Reading