Tom Wheeler Makes First Staff Address as FCC Chairman

1:40 PM PST 11/05/2013 by Alex Ben Block
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Tom Wheeler

Calling it the "Optimism Agency" of the federal government, Wheeler introduces new staff -- including controversial hire Gigi Sohn -- and tells his team "the 21st century economy starts here."

Declaring that the Federal Communications Commission is the "Optimism Agency" of the federal government, new FCC chairman Tom Wheeler addressed employees at the agency Tuesday for the first time and shared some thoughts about the task ahead on his blog.

Wheeler writes that it is the Optimism Agency because it is the place that will help bring forth the "connective technology that will define the 21st century," adding: "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."

A history buff, Wheeler says that when President Obama nominated him he was at work on a new book about "the great network revolutions in history." He lists among them the invention of Gutenberg's printing press, the arrival of the railroads and the telegraph, which made possible instant communications and "opened the door to everything from broadcasting to the first telephone. Each of these revolutions redefined mankind's path forward."

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We are now entering the fourth great network revolution, says Wheeler, but this one is different: "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."

He added that each new network has produced upheaval, dislocation, fear and concern. "Yet at the same time," writes Wheeler, "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."

Wheeler writes that he had just hung in his office an 1839 poster from Philadelphia warning mothers to look out for their children because of the arrival of trains. He said he hung that 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," adds Wheeler. "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."

Wheeler also praised his immediate predecessor, FCC commissioner Mignon Clyburn, who has been acting chair since Julius Genachowski left last May, saying the agency is "better off because of her leadership."

He also announced new hires he is bringing to the agency, which were first revealed on Monday. They include Gigi Sohn, whose appointment has had Washington buzzing. That is because until now Sohn, founder of the nonprofit group Public Knowledge, has been a frequent critic of the FCC and has a track record of opposing media consolidation, advocating net neutrality rules cable companies oppose and taken positions on copyright protection which rile the big studios.

As special counsel for external affairs, writes Wheeler, Sohn will "bring her deep knowledge of consumer and public-interest perspectives to an agency that, of course, protects consumers and serves the public interest."

Wheeler listed three things that the FCC will stand for on his watch:

· To promote economic growth – technological innovation, growth and national economic leadership.

· To maintain the historic compact between networks and users (because change does not change the rights of users or the responsibilities of networks).

·To make networks work for everyone – to enable 21st century education, enable expansion of capabilities for the disabled and assure diversity, localism and speech.

Wheeler encouraged his staff to interact with him and said his FCC will solicit ideas from many sources, which he referred to as a form of "crowdsourcing."

"We will bring the information era practice of crowdsourcing to the thoughts and ideas of the FCC staff," he wrote, noting that he has asked his new special counsel Diane Cornell to deliver "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."

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