Vowing 'new day,' U.S. telecom chief kicks off review of FCC

Tue Nov 5, 2013 7:21pm EST

* Wheeler promises pro-competitive FCC

* Complex auction of radio airwaves looms

* Public interest advocate tapped for key FCC post

By Alina Selyukh

WASHINGTON, Nov 5 (Reuters) - A fresh era started at the U.S. Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday with a 30-minute speech to staff by the agency's new chief, who promised a more current and more nimble regulatory body.

"The industries with which we work are always taking reasonable risks; I hope we won't shy away from a similar approach," FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler said in his first public comments since sworn into office a day earlier.

The new regulator, a Democrat and industry veteran, called the FCC an "optimism agency" and promised a pro-competition approach that fosters innovation, helps along the revolutionary transition of networks but continues to protect consumers.

One of his first orders of business: a "crowdsourced" review of proposals put forward by FCC commissioners and staff, lawmakers and other stakeholders aimed at upgrading and improving outdated regulations or cumbersome procedures.

"As networks change, those charged with the responsibility of overseeing those networks must also evolve," Wheeler said in the speech that was later posted as a blog titled "A New Day at the FCC: Perspectives, Challenges, and Opportunities."

Telecommunications stakeholders - industry and watchdogs alike - have put a lot of hopes on Wheeler to provide strong-willed and pragmatic leadership to the five-member commission that oversees radio, television, cable and wireless industries.

Wheeler is a close ally of President Barack Obama and in the past lobbied for cable and wireless industries.

Wheeler's predecessor Julius Genachowski has been criticized for seeking consensus at the expense of completing practical solutions. Many tasks are now left for the new chair to resolve, such as the 2010 quadrennial review of rules that restrict who can own media outlets.

Wheeler, 67, will also have to take on perhaps the most challenging assignment the agency has faced in decades: a complex sale of radio airwaves now occupied by TV stations to wireless service providers, planned for 2015.

After Genachowski left in May, the FCC stayed active and moved quickly under acting Chair Mignon Clyburn on consumer-oriented issues such as lowering of prison phone rates.

But progress stalled on writing the rules for the auction, a critical business opportunity for top U.S. wireless companies Verizon Communications Inc, AT&T Inc, Sprint Corp and Deutsche Telecom AG's T-Mobile as well as the broadcaster community and other companies such as Dish Network Corp hoping to buy more spectrum.


Wheeler's picks for his top staff reflected that priority, being heavy with telecom and wireless experts. Ruth Milkman, now the FCC's wireless bureau chief, will become the new chairman's chief of staff.

In a surprise move, Wheeler on Monday tapped an outspoken critic of the agency and longtime public interest advocate Gigi Sohn to be his special counsel for external affairs.

Sohn, a fixture in the telecom circles and most recently president of consumer group Public Knowledge, was an early supporter of Wheeler's nomination.

Sohn is a strong advocate of the so-called net neutrality principle, which holds that all Internet traffic should be equal. The issue is now in the hands of a federal court.

Along with Wheeler, the FCC this week welcomed its final fifth member, a second Republican commissioner and long-time congressional staffer Michael O'Rielly. Wheeler told staff that while awaiting confirmation, the two spent time together in the same jury pool at a District of Columbia court.

In the speech, the new chairman cited several of his own books - on leadership lessons from the Civil War and his new one on network revolutions - and promised to promote economic growth, keep the "historic compact" between networks and users and to "make networks work for everyone."

The FCC under Wheeler will also face the challenge of how best to transition the telephone industry away from traditional analog networks to digital ones, and landlines to wireless, without leaving any consumers disconnected.

"It is an historical reality that network change produces tempers that boil, voices that rise, and cries of alarm," Wheeler said, adding that he hung up in his office a 1983 poster that opposed interconnection of two rail lines.

"It is amidst just that sort of upheaval that we have the responsibility of assuring that innovation and technology advance - indeed, advance with speed - while at the same time preserving the basic covenant between networks and those whom they connect."

To read Wheeler's speech, see:

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