FCC Chief Vows Not to ‘Sit Around and Suck Eggs’ on Phone Upgrade

Wheeler says tech transition is critical to the economy.

National Journal
Brendan Sasso
Feb. 6, 2014, 6:12 a.m.

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.