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Gigi Sohn

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The Next FCC Chair: Decisive Protector of the Public Interest

Posted: 01/17/2013 11:15 am

Even though current FCC Chair Julius Genachowski has not announced that he is leaving, there is still much talk about who is being considered to be his successor. In its never-ending fascination with the horse race of politics, the trade press has been throwing out names of the supposed frontrunners every few weeks or so.

But this focus on names is premature. Before we talk about who will be the next FCC Chair, there needs to be a conversation on the qualities the ideal candidate should possess. Because the issues and controversies that will come before the Commission over the next four years will be no less contentious than in the previous four.

The next Chair will preside over matters such as the end of the copper telephone network, finalizing spectrum auctions and limits on the amount of spectrum one company can own, figuring out how to promote broadband competition, and of course, how to reinstate the agency's authority (and indeed its relevance) should it lose the legal challenge to the open Internet or "network neutrality" rules. This is in addition to whatever transactions the Commission may be asked to facilitate by industry.

Is Comfortable as a Regulator

So what qualities should the next FCC Chair possess? First and foremost, the individual must be comfortable in the role of a regulator. This should not be taken to mean that the Chair should seek to regulate every industry heavily. But it does mean that where it is necessary to promote competition and/or protect consumers, the Chair must act, and decisively, with the understanding that in many regulatory battles there are winners and losers. And yes, that action should also include deregulation, particularly where regulations protect incumbents at the expense of competition.

A sound regulator also keeps fights out of the White House. As important as those of us in the telecom bubble think these issues are, for a President dealing with more fiscal cliffs and budget ceilings in front of him, agitation to pass laws governing gun control, immigration reform, and climate change, communications policy issues just don't rate. And that's why we have an independent FCC - to protect the public interest in those matters.

Understands the Role of Congress

The next FCC Chair needs also to understand the role of Congress, and that body's limitations given how sharply divided it is. Let's get real - an Obama FCC Chair is going to get pounded by the House Communications and Technology Subcommittee and the full Energy and Commerce Committee much of the time. The House may even vote to overrule decisions, like it did in 2011 with the resolution of disapproval on the open Internet rules. But the Senate, with more Democrats, a number of whom are very progressive, will not allow this FCC to be overruled. So there is no need for the next Chair to negotiate with herself in the fear that Congress will undo what it has done. This is not to say that the next Chair should thumb her nose at Congress - Congress is a critical partner for an agency to accomplish its goals. But the next Chair needs to recognize that it will be up to the FCC to be the ultimate decider of the difficult questions that will come before it.

Seeks Greater Public Input

The next Chair must keep the promise of the Obama administration to involve the public in policymaking. Since the current Chair took office, there have only been a handful of field hearings. That must change. The large public input in matters like network neutrality, the proposed merger of AT&T-T-Mobile, the Stop Online Piracy Act (SOPA) and Protect IP Act (PIPA), shows that ordinary citizens care deeply about the future of our communication system. Not only is seeking real public input good government, it also provides a means by which the next Chair (much like the President himself) can build support for his initiatives.

Is Dedicated to the Institution's Role as Defender of the Public Interest

It will surprise no one that we at Public Knowledge believe that the next FCC Chair must be dedicated to and willing to act to promote, among other things, an open Internet free of gatekeepers, vibrant fixed and mobile broadband competition, universal broadband access and affordability, robust video competition, and a mix of spectrum dedicated both to unlicensed and licensed uses. These are all principles that formed the basis for candidate Obama's technology agenda.

On the question of whether the next FCC Chair should be female or male, I have been public that it is past time for an almost 80 year old agency to be led by a woman. And without a doubt there are a number of women in the field who possess the qualities described above. But regardless of gender, first and foremost, whoever is ultimately chosen must have the fortitude to defend the institution and its role as the protector of the public interest. The American people deserve nothing less.

 

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