Wheeler Defends FCC's 'Network Compact' Agenda

Hopes future officials will apply 'principles to new realities'

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler waxed expository, reflective, philosophical and defensive in remarks to the Aspen Institute Communication Policy Conference Sunday night (Aug. 14). 

In what sounded like a valedictory summary, he surveyed recent FCC actions of the past few years "to preserve a free and open Internet, to modernize outdated [e-rate] programs… to protect consumer rights as we transition from analog to IP networks and to enhance 911 reliability."

He also mentioned, but did not elaborate on, the current open set-top box issue.

Wheeler acknowledged that these and other decisions "all were 3-2 votes at the Commission" even though, as he put it, "These actions sound like common sense." Although his overview did not delve deeply into any of the issues, the speech offered a glimpse of what Wheeler expects his legacy to be.

"Consumer protection items remain in progress, including giving consumers choice in the devices they use to access their pay-tv services, dealing with competitive access to essential last-mile facilities, and protecting consumer privacy rights for network-generated information," Wheeler listed in his prepared text. "While we intend to complete all these matters before the end of the year, their oversight will, no doubt, be priorities for the next Commission."

The chairman explained that he had been invited to Aspen to focus on what lies ahead for the "network revolution… and the FCC."  His wide-ranging remarks cited the commission's actions on 5G, public safety and national security, the broadcast spectrum incentive auction and updates to the educational access program.

"During our tenure – and I want to especially call out commissioners [Mignon] Clyburn and [Jessica] Rosenworcel – we have struggled to adapt… old concepts to the new world," Wheeler said, also crediting his predecessor Julius Genachowski for beginning "the process of refocusing on broadband."

"For the past almost eight years, the FCC has sought to confront network change head-on; to harness the network revolution to encourage economic growth, while standing with those who use the network as consumers and innovators," he said.

Wheeler used his familiar refrain about the "network compact," which he calls "the responsibilities of those who build and operate networks." He focused on the need for interconnection, which he characterized as "access on broadband networks" not just "access to" the networks.

"The ability to interconnect networks becomes crucial when the most important network of our day, the Internet, is but a collection of interconnected networks."

Wheeler repeated his frequent assertion that "American leadership in 5G is a national priority."

"Access to broadband increasingly means access to high-speed wireless connectivity," he insisted. "The mother’s milk of that capability is spectrum."

In a speech that tried to skirt specific political challenges, Wheeler said: "There are those, of course, who have pledged to undo much of what I have just discussed, if given the opportunity.… The American people will decide which path to follow; elections do have consequences.

"Government is where we will work this out," he added. "Those who chant, 'Government is the problem' are wrong. Government isn’t some faceless 'them,' it is 'us.'"

Wheeler said the FCC "has been at the center of the debate over the form and function of our new networks" throughout the Obama administration.

"We have set the stage for the derivative secondary effects that will determine whether this is indeed the greatest transformational period the world has ever seen," he said.

"I hope future FCCs will follow our course and continually reassess and reapply the Network Compact’s timeless principles to new realities," Wheeler concluded. "In many circumstances that will probably mean an expanded reliance on case-by-case assessments of innovative developments rather than broad rules or any kind of pre-approval.

"But whether it is case-by-case, or broad policy reviews, we shouldn’t kid ourselves," Wheeler said. "Existing in the midst of a network revolution is difficult."