What the Senate needs to ask Tom Wheeler

The nomination of Thomas E. Wheeler, longtime president and CEO of the Cellular Telecom and Internet Association, to head the Federal Communications Commission has produced predictable bursts of praise and criticism. Both sides make some valid points, but the simple truth is that we don’t know where Wheeler stands on some of the most critical issues the FCC will face in the coming years — issues that will have a huge impact on consumers.

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We live in an era in which telecommunications technology, and particularly broadband, has become a necessity, as important to economic survival as food and water are to bodily survival. Before confirming Wheeler’s nomination, the Senate should insist on clear, specific answers to the following questions:

Competition: In many communities, particularly in rural areas or lower income neighborhoods, there are fewer carriers offering service than in higher income, urban or suburban areas. At the same time, modern “basic” technologies like wireless and broadband are lightly regulated, as compared to the old copper phone network. What role should the FCC play in improving competition in currently underserved areas, so that we can get closer to universal service?

Availability: In many areas of the country, especially in rural areas or tribal lands, you still can’t get broadband service even if you want it and could afford it — the network simply isn’t built there. This leaves millions of Americans with significantly diminished ability to grow and thrive. How can the FCC achieve universal broadband deployment?

Affordability: In many areas where broadband networks do exist, low-income customers can’t afford to sign up, which perpetuates the digital divide. In an era when applications for even entry-level fast-food jobs are handled online, this stifles economic opportunities for those who need them most. What can the FCC do to make broadband more affordable for low-income consumers?

Advanced Services: Increasingly, telephone service is moving to Internet-based (VoIP) systems, but to the customer, a phone call is a phone call. Customers aren’t concerned with what technology is involved; they care that service is reliable, available and affordable. Given that reality, how should the different technologies used to provide voice services be regulated? Should the type of wires determine the sort of regulation needed, or should the function the technology serves for the customer be the determining factor? And given that it is used to make phone calls, is VoIP a communications service or an information service? What should be the role of the states in regulating those services?

Today the U.S. lags behind much of the industrialized world in broadband speed and quality. What can we do to guarantee subscribers in the United States the same quality and speed found in places like Japan and South Korea?

Preemption: Should local governments be allowed to construct their own telecommunications networks, especially in areas where service providers have not built out their networks?

The telecommunications universe is evolving rapidly, and today some of America’s most vulnerable communities — the communities where unemployment rates are at Great Depression-era levels of 15 percent or more, rather than the 7 and a half percent national average — are being left behind. Ultimately, that will hurt our whole economy. All of us need to know how the next FCC chairman sees this complex landscape, and how he plans to make sure these essential services are within reach of all Americans.

Chen is energy and telecommunications policy director of The Greenlining Institute, www.greenlining.org.