The FCC’s new chairman better be a good juggler

October 31, 2013
Tom Wheeler (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)
Tom Wheeler (Jacquelyn Martin/AP)

Tom Wheeler's work as the nation's top telecom regulator began even before his confirmation by the Senate Tuesday night. The former cable and wireless lobbyist had to tell Sen. Ted Cruz that tightening campaign finance rules was "not a priority" before Cruz would allow his colleagues to approve President Obama's pick for FCC chairman.

Now that he's made one policy pledge, Wheeler, who gets sworn in as the Federal Communication Commission's chair next week, already faces a pile of other backlogged decisions. From steering the country's telephone network toward 21st-century technology to designing an auction that will shape the future of the wireless industry, Wheeler inherits an extensive portfolio. Here's what you need to know about what's in it.

The spectrum incentive auction. In order to satisfy the nation's growing demand for wireless voice and data, the FCC plans to have TV stations give up their licenses to radio spectrum — the invisible channels that carry communications traffic — and sell them to wireless companies. While the basic idea behind how it'll work has been hashed out, the FCC still has to decide on certain details, such as whether to limit the amount of spectrum that big companies like Verizon and AT&T are allowed to buy. The issue has divided businesses and isn't likely to be resolved until the FCC, led by Wheeler, makes a final determination.

The IP transition. Whether we realize it, many of our communications are carried over high-speed fiberoptic cables that run on the same technology the Internet does. Yet a portion of America's phone network still depends on old copper wires. Advocates for a speedier transition to Internet Protocol argue the FCC should hasten its plans to set up pilot programs in various places around the country to predict how the IP transition might unfold more broadly. They also argue that regulations requiring companies to invest equally in copper infrastructure and next-generation fiberoptic networks are holding the transition back. In the coming months, Wheeler's FCC will need to decide whether to trim those and other regulations, and if so, whether to replace them with something else.

Campaign advertisements. Cruz wouldn't let Wheeler's confirmation vote proceed without assurances that he'd avoid using the FCC's regulatory authority to require that political ads be more explicit about their financial supporters. Earlier this year, Wheeler tried to dodge the issue by telling the Senate, "That’s an issue that I look forward to learning more about." But even though Wheeler has told Cruz that campaign advertisements are no longer his priority, the FCC could still revisit the issue.

Net neutrality. The FCC is currently awaiting a decision from the courts over whether it's allowed to prohibit Internet providers from speeding up or slowing down different types of Web traffic. "If Verizon wins," says Roslyn Layton, an American economist at Aalborg University in Copenhagen, "it'll take the wind out of the sails of the net neutrality movement." An unfavorable ruling for the FCC would set a precedent that may also limit its ability to regulate broadband under its current authority. At that point, the agency could try to redefine broadband so that it falls more clearly within the FCC's jurisdiction. The last time the FCC floated that idea, though, it triggered a backlash from Congress.

Getting Internet to schools and libraries. The FCC is in the middle of reforming the Universal Service Fund, which partly supports ongoing efforts to connect schools and libraries to high-speed broadband. Wheeler's task will be to determine if and how to expand that support, in a program known as E-Rate. But E-Rate critics say it's an example of how the Universal Service Fund — which was created to guarantee basic telephone service for all Americans — has suffered from mission creep. Sen. Kelly Ayotte complained Tuesday that despite contributing millions of dollars to the fund, New Hampshire hasn't seen enough of the benefits. "I've been very concerned that this doesn't make economic sense ... the way the distribution is done," said Ayotte.

Also on Wheeler's to-do list? How to better adjudicate disputes between TV stations and cable companies over carrying broadcast content, something CBS viewers experienced directly when a month-long disagreement between the network and Time Warner Cable led to many of CBS's shows being yanked off the air. The spat took a real economic toll: Time Warner lost hundreds of thousands of customers and millions of dollars in revenue.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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Brian Fung | October 31, 2013