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Opening Day at the FCC: Perspectives, Challenges, and Opportunities

by: Tom Wheeler, FCC Chairman

November 5, 2013

Today I had the privilege of meeting with the staff of the Federal Communications Commission for the first time as Chairman. I am grateful to the President and the Senate for the confidence they have placed in me and look forward to working with the superb professionals at the FCC.

Over the last six months Chairwoman Clyburn has kept this agency running in top form. There was nothing “Interim” in her chairmanship. Chairwoman Clyburn and her colleagues addressed tough issues and came to important conclusions. Mignon Clyburn is a leader and the American people and this agency are better off because of her leadership.  

I know from conversations with the Chairwoman that she brushes off such compliments and talks about the great team at the FCC, especially Michele Ellison who took time from her important “day job” to serve as Chief of Staff. Michele and all of the members of Chairwoman Clyburn’s staff also deserve a huge thank you.

As I waited for the Senate’s decision I boned up by reading the speeches of Commissioners Rosenworcel and Pai. And while awaiting confirmation Commissioner O’Rielly and I actually spent time together in the same jury pool at the DC courthouse. It will be an honor to work with these dedicated individuals and to be stimulated by their intellect. Former Chairman Genachowski put us all on a course to a better broadband future and I am very cognizant that we are all building on his accomplishments.

I have been in and out of the offices of the FCC for over 35 years. Over the last three years chairing the Technology Advisory Council (TAC) brought me back into contact with the talent in these halls and once again reminded me of the depth, strength and integrity of the team that is the FCC. From the front desk where Trina Morris always had a warm, “Hello Mr. Wheeler” even before I showed her my identification, to the staff who  seem to be in constant motion from one big new issue to the next. I am extremely mindful that it is the hard-working and dedicated professionals of the Commission who are responsible for what happens here. Chairmen and Commissioners come and go, the secret of the FCC is its people.  I am proud to join this dedicated band.

I am also very excited about the new team that is coming together for this new beginning:

  • Ruth Milkman will be the Chief of Staff. To say that Ruth needs no introduction is an understatement. As Chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau she has been the gold standard in professionalism and leadership. We should all be very grateful that she has undertaken this new responsibility.
  • Phil Verveer will be Senior Counselor in the Chairman’s office. Few have had such an illustrious career: Chief of three different FCC bureaus, the man who signed the Justice Department complaint that resulted in the breakup of AT&T, and most recently as our nation’s Ambassador for International Telecommunications and Information Policy.
  • Jon Sallet will head the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force and will become Acting General Counsel upon General Counsel Sean Lev’s departure before the end of the year.  Jon is a veteran of the Clinton Administration’s telecommunication policy activities, a former Supreme Court clerk, a noted author and commentator on technology policy issues, and someone with whom I worked on the Obama-Biden Transition Team in 2008.
  • Diane Cornell will be Special Counsel, with responsibility for FCC process reform as well as international issues. Another experienced FCC hand, Diane has worked both in Chairman and Commissioner offices as well as in several bureaus. I have had the pleasure of working with Diane and I look forward to doing so once again.
  • Gigi Sohn will be Special Counsel for External Affairs. We all know Gigi as one of the most thoughtful commentators on telecommunications policy through her role as President of Public Knowledge. Gigi will bring her deep knowledge of consumer and public-interest perspectives to an agency that, of course, protects consumers and serves the public interest.
  • Jon Wilkins will be Acting Managing Director and Advisor to the Chairman for Management. Another veteran of the FCC, Jon has been a McKinsey partner for the last decade. He was also chief of staff to the Agency Review Group process of the Obama-Biden Transition. As indicated by his title, Jon will be paying special emphasis to the coordination of the agency’s management with its policy missions.
  • Roger Sherman will be Acting Chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau. In this Congress, Roger has been the Democratic Chief Counsel to the House Committee on Energy and Commerce and Democratic Staff Director to its Subcommittee on Communications and Technology and brings a wealth of knowledge about spectrum policy to his new position.
  • Daniel Alvarez will be a Legal Advisor to the Chairman with focus on the Wireline Competition Bureau, and the Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureau. Daniel has a varied background that included work as a “white hat” hacker before moving into the law and working on a diverse set of state and federal policy issues at Willkie Farr & Gallagher.
  • Maria Kirby will be a Legal Advisor to the Chairman with focus on the Media Bureau, the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau, and the Enforcement Bureau.  Maria currently works in the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, and has experience working for the City of New York Office of Federal Affairs, and the Davis Polk & Wardwell law firm.
  • Renee Gregory will be a Legal Advisor to the Chairman, a role she performed with distinction for former Chairman Genachowski. Renee will focus on the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, the Office of Engineering and Technology, and the incentive auction.
  • In the Chairman’s Office I will also be fortunate enough to be able to call upon Deborah Ridley as Confidential Assistant and Sagar Doshi as Special Assistant. Deborah has been Executive Assistant to Chairman Gensler of the CFTC. Sagar, among other activities, has worked at Google on its mobile business strategy.

These are important days in determining the future of our networks and their effect on our commerce and our culture. As a history buff, I love John Gardner’s observation, “History doesn’t look like history when you’re living it.” There is no doubt that today we are living history in the midst of the fourth great network revolution.  Gutenberg’s printing press enabled the original information revolution; the railroad was the first high-speed network; and the instantaneous electronic transmissions of the telegraph opened the door to everything from broadcasting to the telephone. Each of these network revolutions redefined mankind’s path forward.

What makes our revolution different from its predecessors, however, is the speed with which it has developed and the velocity with which it continues to evolve. When the President nominated me I was working on a book about the great network revolutions of history. I know from those histories that network revolutions are not easy, that they produce upheaval, dislocation, fear and concern. 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.

All of the new networks of history created upheaval as incumbents struggled to adapt while maintaining their position, insurgents fought for their rightful place, and the people had to adapt to a changing world. It is a historical reality that network change produces tempers that boil, voices that rise, and cries of alarm.

I have just hung in my office an 1839 poster from Philadelphia in which those who were against the interconnection of two rail lines warned, “Mothers Look Out for Your Children,” and “Philadelphians your rights are being invaded.” All of this, the poster proclaimed, was in “Violation of the Law.” I hung the poster as a reminder that the challenges and the passions with which we deal are neither unique nor new.

Yet it is precisely in the midst of such change that our job as representatives of the people makes the work of this agency even more important. The challenge America faces, and that this agency faces, is to secure the future through the actions of the present – by encouraging investment and innovation; preserving competitive opportunities; protecting consumers; and  assuring the opportunities of the new network extend to all.  

We’ll have more to say about the role of the FCC in the changing communications landscape in the coming weeks and months, I’m sure. Suffice it to say, that as networks change, those charged with the responsibility of overseeing those networks must also evolve. Congress instructed us to act in the “public interest, convenience and necessity.” I look forward to working with the Congress and to carrying out those instructions.

During my confirmation hearing I described myself as “an unabashed supporter of competition because competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets.” Yet we all know that competition does not always flourish by itself; it must be supported and protected if its benefits are to be enjoyed. This agency is a pro-competition agency.

We stand for the things that are important regardless of the network technology being used:

  • To promote economic growth – technological innovation, growth and national economic leadership have always been determined by our networks; competition drives the benefits of those networks; and we have a responsibility to see to the expansion of those networks, including the appropriate allocation of adequate amounts of spectrum.
  • To maintain the historic compact between networks and users – a change in technology may occasion a review of the rules, but it does not change the rights of users or the responsibilities of networks.
  • To make networks work for everyone – it isn’t just that we expand high-speed Internet, but what we will be doing with that capacity. How networks enable a 21st century educational system, enable the expansion of capabilities for Americans with disabilities; and assure diversity, localism and speech are basic underpinnings of our responsibility.

I believe we are the “Optimism Agency” of the Federal government. The connective technology that will define the 21st century flows through the FCC. In so many ways our new networks are integral to challenges as diverse as education, energy, and health care. The 21st century economy begins here.

Our challenge is to be as nimble as the innovators and network builders who are creating these great opportunities. The first book I wrote was about leadership lessons from the Civil War. The first chapter of that book is entitled “Dare to Fail.”  It is a philosophy that has been at the heart of the venture capital business from which I come; the majority of a VC’s investments don’t work out as intended, but without taking those risks there can be no big rewards. The industries with which we work are always taking reasonable risks; I hope we won’t shy away from a similar approach.

The power of our new networks is that they distribute activity away from the center to the edge. Effective companies structure themselves in the same manner by delegating responsibility and the authority that goes with it. I hope we can think as a distributed activity ourselves. We cannot sit around and wait for others – including the 8th floor – to come up with ideas and alternatives.

I know that even the best ideas and decisions don’t always work. I will stand behind you in your well-considered decisions. But I’ve always believed there is no such thing as a good 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.

I said that all wisdom does not reside on the 8th floor. In this regard, I am mindful of the proposals put forth by Commissioners and FCC staff, members of Congress, and other stakeholders regarding the way in which the FCC conducts business. I’ve asked Diane Cornell to head a temporary working group to look into these proposals. Notice the term “temporary.” Diane’s report will be on my desk in less than 60 days. But this effort is not confined to a select group. We will bring the information era practice of crowdsourcing to the thoughts and ideas of the FCC staff. Diane will shortly be delivering such a crowdsourcing request for thoughts about regulations that are past their prime and procedures that can be improved to all FCC staff. I hope the crowd will be large.

And one final observation. If you don’t see me walking around these halls call me out. The action is out here, not within the walls of the Chairman’s office. And, please, when you do see me, don’t be a stranger; let me know what you’re working on and what’s on your mind.

These are exciting times. I’m proud to be joining this team. It will be a privilege to work with you.

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