The Federal Communications Commission was started in 1934, long before the internet. But more and more, it's a government organization expected to play referee in the online world.
As a former high powered lobbyist, new chairman Tom Wheeler has a reputation as a Beltway insider, and critics have derided him for the perception that he is too cozy with the industry. Wheeler says his detractors should think of him now lobbying on behalf of all Americans in the way he once lobbied for the cable and wireless industries.
"I'm proud of my previous time working with two dynamic and growing industries, and I hope that I was a good advocate for them," he says. "Today, the American people are my client, and I want to be the best possible advocate for the American people."
Wheeler used to lobby for broadcasters and telecom companies. One big challenge he's facing is net neutrality -- whether internet service providers can restrict or degrade access to online services from competitors.
One of the immediate things on his list, though, is the country's shrinking spectrum for our multiplying mobile devices.
To address the issue, the FCC voted this fall to re-purpose the spectrum from TV broadcasters for wireless networks. Broadcasters will voluntarily sell their part of the spectrum back to the federal government, which in turn will auction it off to wireless broadband providers.
"That, hopefully, will be a marketplace means of determining what the highest and best use of the spectrum is, and then we will take that spectrum -- which we have bought back -- and resell it to the wireless carriers to be able to meet the climbing demand for wireless services," Wheeler says.
During his first day on the job, Wheeler got notice for a blog post about the covenant between networks and the people they connect. Writing that we are in the middle of "the fourth great network revolution" in history, Wheeler says the FCC must adapt to networks since they’re evolving more rapidly than ever before.
"I think that one of the things we have to make sure is that technology doesn't change the basic relationship between networks and those that use them," Wheeler says. "Concepts like the right of access to a network, the need for networks to interconnect, that the values that consumers always come to rely on from their networks are preserved."
How the regulatory agency will weigh in on the ongoing debate over net neutrality could be one of Wheeler’s defining legacies in the role. But if you want to know what his thoughts are, he'll give you a rather neutral answer.
"Access, indeed, is one component of the network compact, and it takes all kinds of forms. There's access to a network itself through a broadband network -- if you're out in a remote area, how do you get access to the network? It is making sure that the rights of consumers are not denied, because if theirs are denied, then their access is de facto denied."