Chairman or strawman? Wheeler's FCC manifesto takes both sides

8 December 2013 by Steve Blum
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Of course, some people do go both ways.

There are two ways to remain a mystery in public life: keep your mouth shut or unleash a flood of comments that have a profound ring, but make sure that half those statements contradict the other half. The chairman of the FCC, Tom Wheeler, has chosen the latter path.

In his maiden policy speech – given at his alma mater, Ohio State – and in subsequent conversation, Wheeler managed to be for and against network neutrality and came out in favor of competition, sort of. On the same day last week, he published a 31-page manifesto that ambled through the history of transport, publishing and telecommunications, finally arriving at policy “pillars” that might guide his term as chairman. Or might not.

For example…

The FCC must play the crucial role of facilitating more dynamic, world-leading change to ensure that the gains of the last several decades are dwarfed by the wonders of the years to come. At the same time, the Commission must also safeguard, nurture and project into the future the enduring civic values that networks have historically embodied.

So Wheeler’s FCC will promote change within limits. Setting it up that way allows him to either promote innovation by invoking wonders yet to come or oppose it by saying change destroys historic civic values. That’s not a statement of guiding principle. Rather, he’s saying he’s amenable to argument from either side of an issue. Take competition…

The real world business environment inherently attracts anti-competitive antibodies seeking to immunize markets from its effects.

The role of the FCC is to both protect and stimulate competition in order to provide consumers access to world class networks on reasonable terms…If the goal of the providers of telecommunications services is to avoid regulation, then the path to that end is clear: effective competition in the present and an effective path to competition in the future. Where markets fail or are threatened, the FCC has the responsibility to provide redress.

You can read that as Wheeler saying the FCC should kick down barriers to competition and let the market take it from there, or he’s saying that if the market doesn’t provide what he considers to be “world class networks on reasonable terms”, then the FCC will make sure it does. Actually, he’s saying both and committing to neither.

It’s a fine way to remain a neutral arbiter, and there’s a lot to be said for an FCC chair who assumes that role. But it’s likelier he’ll stand on one philosophical side or another, and lead the FCC and the U.S. telecoms industry in that direction. We’ll just wait to see which.