In other words, as Wheeler elaborated, the FCC has enough tools to handle the transition from analog technology to an Internet Protocol (IP) future. "As we move from 19th-century to a 21st-century technology, we have to make sure that we bring along with it all the values that consumers have always had a right to expect."
Gary Shapiro, CEA President & CEO
Shapiro's final effort to determine Wheeler's political outlook came when he suggested that the consumer electronics industry might be frustrated by the lack of "clarity" in the FCC's case-by-case approach to setting policy and establishing guidelines for issues that affect the industry. Wheeler replied that industries cannot expect regulators in fast-changing times to expect the sort of simple, fixed rules that apply, for example, to board games. If that were possible, "there would be a lot more security for you," said Wheeler. But such rigidity might also thwart innovation.
In that light, he said, the CE industry can depend on the FCC to intervene in the market only "when there are untoward consequences for competition and consumers. We're pro-innovation and pro-competition, and we want to protect both."
Conceding the point, Shapiro replied, "That's American pie."
Speaking of pie, a major concern of the discussion was a series of upcoming spectrum auctions, to slice up and re-allocate a number of blocks of unused broadcast spectrum that have become available as a result of the "digital revolution." Wheeler said the first of these, on January 22, will sell H Block licensed spectrum in the 1,915 to 1,920 MHz and 1,995 to 2,000 MHz bands, formerly part of the PCS cellular band. So far, according to FCC documents, 23 qualified bidders have signed up.
Auction No. 2, in fall 2014, will involved paired spectrum blocks at frequencies from 1.7 to 2.1 Ghz. The third sale, in 2015, is an "incentive auction" that covers space in the broadcast television band. It offers the unprecedented opportunity for broadcasters to give up spectrum they don't need and resell it, an initiative, noted Wheeler, that has "never been tried before in the world."
As part of this process, Wheeler assured Shapiro that additional unlicensed spectrum, valuable for applications such as Bluetooth and WiFi, will probably become available. He said the FCC will encourage new uses for this unlicensed spectrum.
Wheeler emphasized the opportunity he sees in the IP transition, the spectrum auctions, and other challenges faced by the FCC in his just-begun chairmanship. "New technology traditionally plows under old business models," but things might be different this time. If handled properly, with competition in mind and with well defined "values" that include public service, the current upheaval can be "an opportunity for broadcasters to harness the new digital universe while performing the same public services they perform now."
— David Benjamin is a freelance writer for EE Times.