Federal Communications Commission Chairman Tom Wheeler promised Thursday to move as quickly as possible to allow phone companies to upgrade to Internet-based networks.
"If we sit around and suck eggs like the FCC did when they were thinking about should we use spectrum for cellular, we will have incredibly adverse consequences for the growth of this economy," Wheeler said at a policy summit hosted by National Journal. The comment was a shot at former FCC Commissioner and Chairman Robert E. Lee, who served from 1953 to 1981 and once said that people who called each other on cellphones were "frivolously using spectrum."
But Wheeler also emphasized that his agency must be careful to apply regulatory safeguards to the new Internet-based phone systems.
"You've got to make sure you preserve the values, you preserve consumer protection, you preserve and encourage competition. And those are neither easy tasks nor things to be taken lightly," he said at the event, which was underwritten by Neustar. "We are the representatives of the people in the midst of a tumultuous change."
He added that the FCC only has "one shot," so it must ensure that it gets it right.
"You can't do a Gilda Radner on this—'Oh, never mind,' " Wheeler said.
The FCC voted last week to move ahead with trials around the country to gather data and study which regulations should apply when phone companies abandon their old copper lines in favor of IP systems. Phone companies are subject to a slew of FCC regulations, but Internet services are currently much more lightly regulated.
Following Wheeler's remarks, Bob Quinn, AT&T's senior vice president for federal regulatory issues, said the sign of a successful transition will be that most consumers don't even notice it. But he acknowledged that the last person connected to the old phone system will have "quite a bill."
Harold Feld, the senior vice president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge, warned that the FCC must ensure that a host of critical features of the phone networks—such as fire alarms in schools—continue to function.
"I think the important role of the FCC right now is to make sure the vital communications network of the country doesn't crash and burn," Feld said. He expressed concern that last month's decision by the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals striking down the FCC's net-neutrality rules could hamstring the agency's ability to effectively regulate Internet-based phone networks.
But AT&T's Quinn argued that the decision left the FCC plenty of leeway to regulate.
"I think it gives the commission an enormous amount of tools to effectuate the IP transition," Quinn said.