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Preeti Vissa Headshot

How to Pick an FCC Chair Who Gets It

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With outgoing FCC Chair Julius Genachowski's next career move already announced, talk in Washington is that President Obama will be nominating his successor sooner rather than later. This is important to the future of all communities in a world increasingly dependent on telecommunications technology.

And getting this appointment right isn't as simple as it seems.

As my colleague Stephanie Chen has been pointing out in a series of posts lately, this is not just a question of finding someone with generic qualifications for working at the FCC -- smarts, knowledge of telecommunications, etc. Lots and lots of people have those basic qualifications.

What we need is someone specifically ready for the unique and complex challenges that telecom regulators will have to address over the next several years. Those challenges haven't gotten nearly enough attention from the media.

First of all, you might expect the world's leading economy to have a world-leading telecommunications network. Instead, out of 33 countries, we rank 15th in terms of broadband adoption, 9th in broadband speed, and 21st in broadband prices. Indeed, our phone companies have trouble guaranteeing you'll actually be able to place and receive a call when you want to.

Perhaps most critically, there's the question of "universal service." Universal Service -- the notion that everyone should have access to affordable telephone service at just and reasonable rates -- has been this country's policy since 1934. It's still a vital principle, but the technological landscape in which it operates is changing rapidly. Instead of essentially immobile devices connected by miles of copper wire, we now have mobile networks and increasing use of Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP, to transmit phone signals.

And, as Stephanie noted recently, that's where things get tricky:

There are different rules about how the FCC can regulate "communications services" (e.g. phone calls) and "information services" (e.g. voice mail). The FCC has pretty broad authority to designate a service as communications or information, but has categorically avoided designating some services (like Voice over Internet Protocol, or VoIP services) as either. This has allowed the telecommunications industry to make incredibly complicated legal arguments like "well, there's a telephone at each end of the call, and the folks using the telephones think they're on a phone call, but technically it's not a phone call, and therefore we have no obligation to provide decent service quality, complete customers' calls or provide them access to customer service." Seriously. I couldn't even make this stuff up.

Regardless of the technology, universal service still matters. Without it, the telecom companies will do just what America decided in 1934 that they couldn't afford to let them do: Focus all their resources on the most profitable, easiest to reach customers, leaving folks with less money to spend or living in isolated, rural areas disconnected and out of luck. If we let that happen, the much-discussed "digital divide" will become a digital Grand Canyon.

So while the next FCC chair needs to understand the ins and outs of technology and related law, that won't be enough. He or she must also understand that consumers are different. Different groups -- whether based on income, race, geography, or some other factor -- have different telecommunications needs. And we need a telecommunications system that works for everyone.

If we end up with an FCC chair who doesn't get this vital concept, much of America will be in serious trouble.

Happily, there are candidates out there with both the legal/technical savvy and the gut-level knowledge of the diverse communities their decisions will affect. For example, here in California, we're lucky enough to have one of those individuals on our Public Utilities Commission -- Commissioner Catherine Sandoval. Sandoval has shown that she not only understands the complexities of telecommunications law and policy, she also understands that high-level policy decisions have real-world impacts which differ from community to community. And she is known for seeking input from communities before making a decision that impacts those communities -- a practice that is shockingly rare in telecommunications policy.

This is not to say that there aren't other excellent candidates out there. But this sort of combination of legal and policy savvy with a community-level grasp of the human impacts of regulatory policies is the essential bottom line for any FCC nominee.