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Editorial: The Wheeler FCC

FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler’s first staff appointments and opening
speech/blog to the troops last week showed he is ready to both hit the ground running and rattle a few cages in the process.

Among his initial actions was to charge a new
appointment, special assistant Diane Cornell,
with the task of heading up a temporary working
group to assess the various FCC reform proposals
from Congress and commission staffers and
report back within 60 days.

Wheeler said the FCC would also be reaching
out to “crowd-source” ideas for reform. That
should also not be an open-ended process.

Reforming the FCC has bipartisan support,
though the devil remains in the details on that
one — such as putting shot clocks on FCC decisions,
or limiting commission merger conditions,
which Republicans favor and Democrats treat as
something to wrap in garlic and pin to the ground
with a stake.

But as a general principle, we agree completely
with Wheeler’s statement that the FCC should
“be as nimble as the innovators and networkbuilders
who are creating these great opportunities.”
Given the size of the bureaucracy and the
traditional pace of decision-making in that office,
that conjures visions of a hippo in a tutu; nevertheless,
it is the right goal to pursue.

We will be looking for some real-world reform
recommendations out of the Wheeler FCC, and
even better, some action. We also agree that communications
within the FCC are crucial. We grant
you, that statement should have the ring of “we
hold these truths to be self-evident,” and yet there
have been some internal rumblings in the past
about decisions out of the chairman’s office that
took some commissioner staffers by surprise. “The
secret to successful delegation of responsibility is
the sharing of the knowledge of what is being done
so as to prevent colleagues from being blindsided,”
Wheeler said last week. “I’ve always believed there
is no such thing as a good surprise,” he added. We
can associate ourselves with those remarks as well.

On balance, and with only a few days as a guide,
Wheeler appears to be the chairman we expected.
Smart, eloquent, broadband-focused, and with a
sense of the weight of responsibility the job carries
and the changes he can help bring about.

“Network revolutions are not easy; they produce
upheaval, dislocation, fear and concern,” he told a
commission meeting room packed with staffers.
“Yet at the same time, the new networks became
the underpinning of everything from the Reformation
to the Industrial Revolution. 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.”

While Wheeler’s was a broadband-centric
speech, we urge him to include the network of
broadcast stations that also deserve a chance
to innovate. As an adviser to President Obama,
Wheeler helped move the DTV transition date to
protect a minority of broadcast viewers
who could have been adversely
impacted. An even larger number of
over-the-air viewers need a similar advocate
in what will be a second DTV
transition — the incentive auctions.

The aforementioned cage-rattling
from Wheeler came in his appointment
of Gigi Sohn, long-time public interest
activist and founder of Public Knowledge,
to “shape the message” out of
the FCC as head of media, legislative
and intergovernmental relations.

Public Knowledge has been a critic
of the retransmission consent regime.
The group teamed with cable and satellite
operators to push the FCC to prevent
blackouts, mandate interim carriage and make
other moves broadcasters say would undercut their
retrans leverage in favor of cable operators.

Some broadcasters are concerned that Sohn has
been too closely aligned with that position for comfort.
Certainly the White House has been critical
of putting industry advocates directly into government
posts where they deal with similar issues.

But Sohn told B&C last week that broadcasters
should not be worried and that she has proven
herself to be “an honest broker.” Granted, it’s not
as if she’s been some fringe player, hurling rocks
from outside the fence. Public Knowledge was at
the table when the compromise network neutrality
regulations were hammered out at the FCC,
and the group has been able to work with big,
and not so big, cable companies on their shared
retrans position. The group also has said broadcast
content should be free of content regs.

We will hold Sohn to her “honest broker” credential
and to shaping a pro-competitive FCC
message that recognizes the values of both broadcasting
and cable to the marketplace.