Cell-phone use on airlines grabbed all the headlines Thursday, but while the world wasn't paying attention, the Federal Communications Commission moved ahead with less-noticed but more-important policy changes in its long-term agenda.
FCC Chairman Tom Wheeler hinted on Thursday that the agency would impose bidding limits on AT&T and Verizon in an upcoming government auction of spectrum. The sale, scheduled for 2015, will allow wireless networks to purchase the spectrum from broadcasters that they need to keep pace with the public's demand for mobile phones and ubiquitous Internet connection.
Wheeler's statements, made during a House committee hearing, follow AT&T's indication Tuesday that it was shifting its position on bidding caps, saying it is open to caps provided they are applied equally to all participants in the highly anticipated incentive auction.
The caps are aimed at balancing competition between the industry juggernauts — AT&T and Verizon — and smaller carriers, and have been a hotly contested point throughout the run-up to the auction. Harold Feld, senior vice president at Public Knowledge and one of the witnesses at Tuesday's hearing, said the shift signals to stakeholders in the auction process that "it's time to roll up the sleeves and get serious about what you can live with instead of what you want."
And that wasn't all the news Wheeler had for Congress. The chairman reassured members that he supports an open Internet — "full stop."
With a federal court decision imminent for FCC v. Verizon, which concerns the agency's ability to enforce net neutrality, Wheeler had sent a ripple of fear around the Internet community in his first public remarks last week when he implied he may be open to price discrimination of Internet traffic.
Finally, Wheeler promised that his bureaucratic behemoth is taking seriously its promise to streamline the way it operates. The FCC has been notoriously out of step with the dynamic, innovative technology industry it regulates.
The House Commerce Committee Wednesday advanced a reform bill for the FCC, a measure that Wheeler said Thursday was "significant, noted, and appreciated." He is expecting an in-house report on the subject by the end of the month.
But even as he was making his proclamations, the FCC got a pointed reminder of the technological challenges his agency faces: During Thursday's meeting, the live-streaming of Thursday's open commission meeting cut out halfway through.