Meet the Federal Government’s ‘Optimism Agency’

New FCC chief Tom Wheeler, who once wrote a book about Lincoln and the telegraph, calls the Internet a "hinge moment" of history

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Jason Reed / REUTERS

Tom Wheeler

It’s a new day at the Federal Communications Commission, the U.S. agency that regulates the nation’s broadcast airwaves, broadband networks, and cable, telecommunications, and Internet companies.

On Monday, new FCC chairman Tom Wheeler, a former venture capitalist and wireless and cable industry lobbyist, was formally sworn in, six months after President Obama nominated him to succeed Julius Genachowski, who stepped down in March. Wheeler promptly announced several senior staff appointments, including longtime FCC critic Gigi B. Sohn, the president of Public Knowledge, who will become Special Counsel for External Affairs.

On Tuesday, Wheeler penned an offical blog post on the FCC’s website outlining his vision for the commission. “I believe we are the ‘Optimism Agency’ of the Federal government,” Wheeler wrote. “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.”

Wheeler faces several daunting challenges as he takes control of the FCC, including preparing for a highly anticipated — and extremely complicated — “incentive auction” aimed freeing up wireless spectrum currently owned by TV broadcasters for consumer use. The FCC also faces a closely watched legal challenge over its authority to enforce the “Open Internet” rules that are the basis of net neutrality, the idea that broadband providers shouldn’t discriminate against rival services.

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Wheeler isn’t just a policy wonk — he’s an intellectual and self-described “history buff,” who wrote a book about how Abraham Lincoln used the telegraph — at the time a still-new technology — during the Civil War. In the book, Wheeler describes the Civil War as “a hinge moment in American history that could have swung either way. That Lincoln used the telegraph to assure the hinge swung forward, not backward, makes his use of electronic messages even more important.”

It’s worth noting that in his statement on the day he was confirmed by the Senate, Wheeler also deployed the “hinge moment” metaphor. “What excites me about this new responsibility is how we are at a hinge moment of history; the Internet is the greatest communications revolution in the last 150 years,” he said. “We must all dedicate ourselves to encouraging its growth, expanding what it enables, and assuring its users’ rights are respected.”

In his blog post on Tuesday, Wheeler, ever the historian, wrote about great communications upheavals of the past, and described the advent of the Internet as 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,” he wrote. “Each of these network revolutions redefined mankind’s path forward.”

“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,” Wheeler continued. “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.”

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In his blog post, Wheeler outlined three goals for the FCC under his leadership:

  • 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.

Shortly after taking the oath of office on Monday, Wheeler announced several senior FCC staff appointments, including Ruth Milkman as Chief of Staff, Phil Verveer as Senior Counselor, and Diane Cornell as Special Counsel. But the most surprising appointment was Gigi B. Sohn, a longtime and outspoken critic of the FCC who is President of D.C.-based digital rights group Public Knowledge.

Sohn will become Special Counsel for External Affairs, and will serve as a liaison between the FCC, Congress and other government agencies. “We all know Gigi as one of the most thoughtful commentators on telecommunications policy through her role as President of Public Knowledge,” Wheeler wrote. “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.”

Sascha Meinrath, Vice President at the New America Foundation and Director of the Open Technology Institute, expressed optimism about Sohn’s appointment. “I’ve worked with Gigi Sohn for years and was extremely pleased to see Wheeler appoint her as Special Counsel for External Affairs,” said Meinrath, who has been a vocal skeptic of Wheeler’s nomination. “Gigi has proven a stalwart defender of consumer rights and long-standing advocate for the public interest.”