Nimble? The FCC?

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

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DanJones 11/8/2013 | 3:04:08 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily Interesting, thanks!
BrettGlass 11/8/2013 | 2:02:06 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily Alas, Carol, Gigi Sohn has quite a lot of sympathy for commercial interests -- specifically, the ones that have paid her salary for many years by giving money to her lobbying firm Public Knowledge. While Gigi may, indeed, have "network neutrality" tattooed on her ankle, it is not out of concern for the public interest (it is not in the public interest at all, because it raises the cost of broadband service) but rather on behalf of her corporate benefactors, including Google and Netflix. This was reflected in the weak arguments made by Michael Weinberg -- who, with the departure of Ms. Sohn, is now one of the top execs of Public Knowledge -- at your forum at CTIA 2012.

It is never good for a lobbyist to be able to join an agency he or she lobbied and influence it from the inside. This "revolving door" is inimical to good governance. Let's hope that the FCC isn't too "nimble" -- at least insofar as pursuing the agendas of the lobbyists who have effectively infiltrated it.

--Brett Glass

Carol Wilson 11/7/2013 | 12:01:23 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily Interesting perspective, Duh. I hope you are right.

I do totally agree that already knowing the industry and the entrenched positions will be a positive thing for Wheeler and will alllow him to move more quickly on some issues than a chairman from the outside. We'll see how this knowledge serves him and his new constituency in the coming months. 
Duh! 11/7/2013 | 11:56:45 AM
Re: Negativity comes easily Mr. Wheeler is an attorney. His responsibility is to protect the best interest of his clients.  When he was a lobbyist, his clients were the wireless industry and the cable industry.  Now his client is the United States.  My assumption is that he will act in the best interest of us, his clients.    Even when it crosses his former clients. 

The reason I'm optimistic is that Mr. Wheeler (by all accounts) knows the system, and deeply understands the interests involved.  It's got to be a lot easier to manage a Rulemaking when the Chair can anticipate the arguments and know which points are going to generate the most pushback and see the grounds for compromise and make sure that process and Rules are defensible.  It's also got to be a lot easier when the Chair has depth of understanding of the industry he regulates. It means a lot fewer ex-parte "tutorials" by interested parties, and hopefully a finely tuned BS detector.

The fact that some of the people talking into his ear are no friends of the industry is also a positive sign that regulatory capture is not going to prevail.
Carol Wilson 11/6/2013 | 5:37:33 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily I'd agree that it's a little late in his career for Tom Wheeler to develop new spots.  The only positive I see is that he comes in fully versed in the history and can hit the ground running. 
DOShea 11/6/2013 | 5:34:07 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily I like the idea of Sohn being involved in some way, and agree that the make-up of the team reflects a little better on Wheeler, but still think he shouldn't be in this kind of government job.
KBode 11/6/2013 | 5:05:35 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily I think the last FCC ignored competition to focus on adoption, and from the stats appears to have failed at both.

The last FCC became a sort of master of flourish over substance, with Genachowski particularly gifted when it came to telling everyone what they wanted to hear but not making tough calls when necessary. A lot of FCC goals (like 98% 4G national coverage, or 100 Mbps to 100 Million cable homes, and even to a large degree our national broadband plan) hinged on goals the industry planned on doing anyway. Political show ponies of a sort.

I have my doubts about Wheeler being much of a variation of the status quo. I also don't believe the narrative in some circles that a 30 year lobbyist is going to magically find a pro-consumer perspective all of a sudden. Still, trying to keep an open mind and am watching him with great interest.
Carol Wilson 11/6/2013 | 4:18:07 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily It is an interesting cast of characters and I give Wheeler credit for assembling a diverse crew. I have read several comments on Ms. Sohn's appointment - some say she'll be neutralized but her organization lives on and is unllkely to change its tune. 

I'm not a Washington insider by any means but I think most folks know Verveer as an anti-trust lawyer.

As for interviews, we'll see. The Washington crowd tends to serve its own first. 
Duh! 11/6/2013 | 4:07:53 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily What do the tea leaves say about the staff appointments?

Isn't Ms. Sohn's position as "Special Counsel for External Affairs" more of a liaison and mouthpiece than an advocate?  Kind of like in of Lyndon Johnson's famous dictum:  "Better to have the [esteemed opposition] inside the tent and [making their mincturations] out, than outside the tent and [making their mincturations] in." 

Philip Verveer, Senior Counsellor to the Chairman:  wasn't he one of the attorneys in US v. AT&T?  And later Common Carrier Bureau Chief in charge of cleaning up the messes left by Divestiture?  Anti-trust hawk?  What does that say about M&A review in the Wheeler term? 

Ruth Milkman, the Chief of Staff... what do you know about the new "gatekeeper" for the Chairman's agenda?

Sagar Doshi, "Special Assistant to the Chairman":  Stanford, Google, Protocol Link.  Clearly from the Internet world, and one of the people who have his ear.  Does that portend more "clue" about the Internet?

Hope you can line up some interviews.


Carol Wilson 11/6/2013 | 3:18:31 PM
Re: Negativity comes easily The previous regime started like a house-a-fire and then seemed to peter out. The whole Broadband Plan implementation certainly reshaped the USF and had a major impact on the telecom industry but it's not clear whether it accomplished is grand goals of making broadband more available to more people.
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