Beyond the wishful thinking title “If I Were the FCC Chairman…,” Tuesday’s Free State Foundation seminar provided a prescient checklist of what major telecom organizations are expecting Tom Wheeler, the nominee for that job, to put atop his To Do list.
Predictably, the lobbyists on the panel – from Time Warner Cable, Verizon and Public Knowledge – prioritized their own objectives, although there was overlap (and differing viewpoints) on topics such as the Internet Protocol (IP) transition, spectrum policy and data caps.
There was also a fascinating call for the in-coming FCC chairman “to bring in engineers and economists.” Deborah Taylor Tate, a former FCC Commissioner and now an FSF Distinguished Adjunct Senior Follow, in wrap-up remarks after the panelists spoke, jokingly asked “Who in the world needs another lawyer at the FCC?” It was a notable conclusion since Wheeler is not an attorney.
Each of the panelists offered a priority list of what he or she would do in the FCC chair. All acknowledged that policy-making has failed to keep pace with technology developments, and most noted that the FCC should eliminate rules that have ceased to be needed. Nonetheless, everyone had a policy agenda in mind.
Gail MacKinnon, executive vice president and Chief Government Relations Officer at Time Warner Cable, said her first steps would “create certainty for infrastructure” providers, including closing down the Title II proceeding and completing a rulemaking on “the outdated retransmission consent” policies within six months. She also would update “all video regulations,” including a decision on whether cable card rules should be eliminated. Her list also included a review of WiFi policies and 5 GHz rules, including a process to “stop differentiating between licensed and unlicensed spectrum.”
Craig Silliman, Verizon’s senior vice president of public policy and government relations, put “the availability of spectrum” at the top of his list, followed by the IP transition, which he emphasized “is going to happen” and “should not be slowed down” by slow policy-making and extended hearings. He also would look at “a special access proceeding” to “learn what competition looks like”; but he would not allow to examination to turn into an open-ended process. Silliman also wants to streamline rules, focusing on “big issues” as he called a “strategic” role for the Commission within the broader government policy-making environment.
Gigi Sohn, president and CEO of the advocacy group Public Knowledge, also put the IP transition atop her list, insisting that “interconnection between networks must be in place as soon as IP is in place.” She also cited data caps, consumer protection and spectrum caps as her top objectives. Sohn agreed the “broken video system” must be fixed, starting with elimination of regulations and action on the All-Vid proceeding, which has not moved. To the surprise of many, Sohn said, in reference to the Circuit Court’s deliberations on Verizon’s challenge to ‘net neutrality rules that Title II “has to be the last resort.”
“A narrow fix is better than going through the ‘nuclear option’ of Title II,” Sohn added. During a follow-up discussion session about video policies, Sohn also noted that there is currently “no clear alternative to the [cable] set-top box” and that the “cable card stinks.”
Net neutrality was also a core topic during the discussion segment, with McKinnon suggesting that the new FCC Chair could say, “It’s up to Congress.” She then acknowledged that “given the divided Congress, I don’t see legislation making its way” into policy. Silliman said that if the Circuit Court upholds FCC jurisdiction over ‘net neutrality, he wonders “how aggressive the FCC will be,” suggesting that the Federal Trade Commission could handle enforcement. That comment prompted Sohn to respond that it would be a “shell game” and that this is “an area beyond what the FTC does to protect consumers.”
As for data caps, Sohn expects an “arms race” for content companies to provide programming which “gets under the cap.” She warned that data caps will impede viewers, who will not seek new content that might run up their data bills.
“Caps make viewers watch the meter,” she said. Her comments were part of a discussion on data caps that extended into pricing and network congestion issues, which in turn led to an analysis of a recent comment that Michael Powell, president of the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, at another FSF conference. Powell said that it pricing is not based on congestion problems.
Silliman refrained his vague call for a “new framework” for telecom policy, a centerpiece of his recent Media Institute speech. When I pressed him for details about his vision for a “framework,” he explained that it’s the “core starting point” for competition and consumer protection, a “holistic environment” which include equipment, operating systems” as well as networks. He then moved into operators’ views about the need for regulatory streamlining: “Don’t build silos around policies of 20 years ago.”
While those checklists offer a glimpse of what cable, telco and public interest groups will expect from the Wheeler-led Commission when it comes together – presumably by autumn – it is only a partial picture. Free State Foundation President Randy May, in response to my query about the lack of broadcasters or other “interested parties,” acknowledged that the panel represented only a sampling of groups that would bring issues to the FCC.
Sohn suggested that the new Chairman, in his first month on the job, “must say, ‘This is what I want to do.’” She lamented that the previous chairman Julius Genachowski did not do that.
And – thinking of Deborah Tate-Taylor’s concluding comments – Genachowski is a lawyer.