Wheeler’s success as FCC chair hinges on his enthusiasm for intervention


So far, so collegial at the FCC, commissioners Pai and Rosenworcel at CES.

Chairman Tom Wheeler’s intention of enforcing a “network compact” via the FCC’s Internet neutrality rule – the open Internet order – won’t go down well with republican-appointed commissioners, but his idea of case by case review might.

“The open internet order was a solution in search of a problem”, said commissioner Ajit Pai at CES yesterday. “The FCC lacks the authority to promulgate the rule”.

The question of whether the FCC has the authority will be answered soon by a federal appeals court. Commissioner Michael O’Rielly said the court should say no, based on his experience, as a congressional aide, writing the law that the rule is based on.

The network compact idea is still vague, perhaps by design. At its core are consumers expectations of their service providers. As Wheeler explained it yesterday at CES, the FCC would play a continuing role as a mediator, ruling whether or not the actions that carriers take meet those expectations. He shied away from the idea of setting specific rules, which stifle innovation in his view.

The first test of that approach could be AT&T’s plan – called sponsored data – to let content providers pay for the bandwidth their subscribers use. Pai thinks that commission action, if any, should be based on the specifics of the plan. “The FCC should not be in the business of declaring a priori a given business model out of bounds”, he said.

It’s not clear how actively Wheeler intends to involve the FCC in managing customer/carrier relationships. If he takes an energetic approach, expect splits to develop. But if he prefers to intervene sparingly, he’ll very likely have the support of the full commission.

About Steve Blum

Steve Blum is president of Tellus Venture Associates, a management, planning and business development consultancy for municipal and community broadband initiatives. He is a 30-year industry veteran and an expert in developing new broadband infrastructure and services, including wireless, fiber optic and satellite systems. His career includes playing key roles in the launch and growth of DirecTv in the U.S., as well as other satellite broadcasting platforms around the world. For the past ten years, he has helped build municipal wireless and fiber optic broadband systems. His client list includes many California cities, such as San Leandro, Palo Alto, Oakland, Los Angeles, Lompoc and Folsom. He’s a member of the executive team for the Central Coast Broadband Consortium and has worked with other regional consortia in California. Steve is the author of seven books on the Internet and satellite broadcasting and is a frequent contributor to professional journals and industry events. He holds an A.B. in History from the University of California, Berkeley, an M.A. in East Asia Studies from the University of Washington, and an M.B.A. from the University of St. Thomas. He is a triathlete and multiple Ironman finisher, and is currently ranked in the top 100 of the Challenge Triathlon world rankings, out of more than 30,000 athletes.