(c) 2013, The Washington Post.
(c) 2013, The Washington Post.
Tom Wheeler's work as the nation's top telecom regulator began even before his confirmation by the Senate on Tuesday night. The former cable and wireless lobbyist had to tell Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Tex., that tightening campaign finance rules on political advertisements was "not a priority" before Cruz would allow his colleagues to approve President Barack Obama's choice to lead the Federal Communications Commission.
Now that he's made one policy pledge, Wheeler, who will be sworn in as chairman next week, faces a pile of other backlogged decisions. Here are some of the top issues he's facing:
Spectrum incentive auction: In order to satisfy the nation's growing demand for wireless voice and data, the FCC plans to have TV stations give up their licenses for electromagnetic spectrum — the airwaves that carry communications traffic — and sell them to wireless companies. While the basic procedures have been hashed out, the FCC still has to decide on certain details, such as whether to limit the amount of spectrum that big companies such as Verizon and AT&T are allowed to buy. The issue has divided businesses and isn't likely to be resolved until the FCC makes a final determination.
Internet Protocol transition: Many of our phone calls are carried over high-speed fiber-optic cables that run on the same technology as the Internet, while a portion of America's phone network still depends on old copper wires. Companies and trade groups want to speed the transition away from copper and soften regulations requiring companies to invest in both copper infrastructure and fiber-optic networks. Supporters of copper say it's more reliable, and in some rural areas, a copper line is all you can get. Wheeler's FCC will need to decide which side to favor.
Campaign ads: Cruz wouldn't let Wheeler's confirmation vote proceed without assurances that he'd avoid using the FCC's regulatory authority to require that political ads be more explicit about their financial supporters. Earlier this year, Wheeler tried to dodge the issue by telling the Senate, "That's an issue that I look forward to learning more about." Even though Wheeler has told Cruz that campaign advertisements are no longer his priority, the FCC could still revisit the issue.
Net neutrality: The FCC is awaiting a decision from the courts on whether it's allowed to prohibit Internet providers such as Verizon from speeding up or slowing down different types of Web traffic. An unfavorable ruling for the FCC would set a precedent that may also limit its ability to regulate broadband under its current authority. At that point, the agency could try to redefine broadband so that it falls more clearly within the FCC's jurisdiction.
Getting Internet to schools and libraries. The FCC is in the middle of reforming the Universal Service Fund, which partly supports efforts to connect schools and libraries to high-speed broadband. Wheeler's task will be to determine if and how to expand that support, in a program known as E-Rate. But E-Rate critics say it's an example of how the Universal Service Fund — which originally was created to guarantee basic telephone service for all Americans — has suffered from mission creep. Sen. Kelly Ayotte, R-N.H., complained Tuesday that despite contributing millions of dollars to the fund, New Hampshire hasn't seen enough of the benefits.