Telecommunications and broadband access are "in a time of revolutionary technological change," and the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission pledged yesterday to be the public's representative in that revolution. The stakes are high and are central to the nation's economic health, said Tom Wheeler, who was confirmed a few weeks ago as head of the FCC.

December 3, 2013

Telecommunications and broadband access are "in a time of revolutionary technological change," and the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission pledged yesterday to be the public's representative in that revolution.

The stakes are high and are central to the nation's economic health, said Tom Wheeler, who was confirmed a few weeks ago as head of the FCC.

"Our growth industries are today based on the exchange and use of digital information," Wheeler said in his first major policy address since becoming chairman.

Wheeler chose Ohio State University to deliver the speech for a variety of reasons, he said, not the least of which is that he graduated from Ohio State more than 40 years ago and grew up in Upper Arlington.

A broader reason, however, is that the location outside the nation's capital sends "a message that the American people are our constituency, that how we connect determines how jobs are created and lives are lived."

Broadband access, he said, is absolutely vital to business and education.

"Having a significant percentage of Americans bypassed by the Internet revolution is unacceptable," he said. "We can't maximize economic growth and job creation when 20 percent of our population is cut off from the digital economy at home."

A recent survey of school teachers and administrators found that 80 percent felt that network broadband wasn't available to them to meet their educational needs, he said.

To answer that problem, the FCC is modernizing its e-Rate program, which provides discounts to schools and libraries on telecommunications and Internet access. Some of the program's operating funds will be directed toward broadband.

"The program we're running now was designed for dial-up," Wheeler said. "We need to move beyond that to broadband. We're going to take the program that exists now and adjust it for the 21st century. We call it e-Rate 2.0."

Another major area of focus is telecommunications, in particular the move to wireless phones and away from land lines.

AT&T, for instance, has petitioned the FCC to begin tests on moving entirely to wireless service and, next week, Wheeler and fellow commissioners will meet to begin figuring out what questions to ask as those trials move forward.

When the trials begin, however, "It will be less tech trial and more about the bigger issue, a values trial."

Those values include preserving the basic rights of consumers and ensuring that network operators continue to fulfill their basic responsibilities. One element of that "network compact" stands out - accessibility.

"There is nothing more fundamental to the FCC's work than ensuring every American has access to our wired and wireless networks," he said.

In that regard, he said, "We've got some work to do. We all know something is happening. What a regulatory agency should not do is predict or force the future. We are here to improve the functioning of the markets. The world's changing, and we're all the better for it.

"I like to say we're the Federal Competition Commission. We're here to preserve and promote competition."

tferan@dispatch.com