The Federal Communications Commission (FCC) moved forward on the transition of the phone system by adopting an order at its February open meeting. By a 5-0 vote, in addition to a number of other important first steps, the FCC adopted a set of governing principles for the transition. The principles focus on core values: Universal Service, Consumer protection, Competition, and Public Safety.
These principles did not just drop out of thin air. Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel first proposed them in this speech in December of 2012. While few have noticed, Rosenworcel continued to quietly and effectively push this framework, culminating in a unanimous vote with broad approval from both corporations and public interest groups.
More amazing for this hyper-partisan and contentious times, the principles capture both progressive values and conservative values, traditionally shared by Republicans and Democrats alike. The idea that access to communications services is so essential to participation in society that the Federal government has a role in making sure that ALL Americans have affordable access goes back to the New Deal and Section 1 of the Communications Act. But the basic precept is even older, going all the way back to Founding Fathers. Article I of the Constitution gives Congress the express power “to establish post offices and post roads” in recognition that ensuring that all Americans can communicate with each other is what helps make us a single country and one people — a core conservative value. As the arteries of commerce and the means of communication have evolved from post roads and post offices to steam trains and telegraphs to the automobile and the telephone, we have continued to preserve this idea of universal service to All Americans as a core traditional value of what it means to be an American.
But as essential and shared as these values are, no one was talking about them as the basis for the Phone Transition, or how to bring them forward into what Chairman Wheeler calls “The Fourth Network Revolution,” until Commissioner Rosenworcel started the conversation. From the time AT&T first proposed a “sunset of the Public Switched Telephone Network” during the National Broadband Plan in 2009 until Rosenworcel’s December 2012 speech, no one even talked about values – let alone proposed that a set of fundamental values needed to guide the transition. The conversation remained mired — and stalled — in myopic focus and bickering on the details of specific regulations. Commissioner Rosenworcel understood well before anyone else that the best way to move forward, and the way to keep the process firmly centered on the public interest, required reaffirming our fundamental values as the first step.
Mind you, Commissioner Rosenworcel has not been the only one pushing a public interest framework as the necessary first step to move us forward and a guide to what to keep, what to change, and what to throw away altogether. I and my employer Public Knowledge have been pretty active on that front ourselves, as have others. But while advocacy can create the space for policymakers to do the right thing, someone with the power to actually propose and push policy needs to actually champion the public interest and move the flag forward.
It is difficult to appreciate today how daunting the challenge was a year ago for then newly-confirmed Commissioner Rosenworcel to turn the conversation from a debate about “regulation” and “deregulation” for its own sake to remembering why we care in the first place and what we hope to accomplish. Outside of Washington D.C., the real world will measure the success of the transition not by how many regulations we kill or keep, but whether the transition of the phone system improves their lives or screws them over. Deciding what we want to accomplish and then arguing about how to do it seems self-evident, and centering the process around the well being of the public and the traditional values that have guided communications policy for 225 years seems a given. But Washington D.C. is funny that way. We suffer too much from what my Public Knowledge colleague John Bergmayer calls “lawyer’s disease” – a tendency to focus on rules and procedures as the ends in themselves rather than as means to an end. No one wanted to talk about values.
But Commissioner Rosenworcel went to work. Like her colleague Commissioner Clyburn, Rosenworcel exemplifies the virtue of “say little, perform much.” Slowly but surely, without any blowing of trumpets or massive fanfare, we moved from a place where no one even talked about values or how the transition would serve the public interest to a place where Republicans and Democrats affirmed the fundamental values she proposed as the framework for the transition by acclaim.
Can anyone point to any other area of public policy where Republicans and Democrats, public interest groups and corporate stakeholders, conservatives and progressives, come together in recent years to agree on fundamental values to guide policy? I think the closest we’ve come in recent years was during the State of the Union address when Republicans and Democrats chanted “USA! USA!” together after Obama mentioned the U.S. Olympic team going to kick butt in Sochi.
And, in the fashion of good policy, this was not only the morally right to do, it was also the best pragmatic thing to do. Adopting the Rosenworcel values framework as the way forward and establishing that common ground allows us to take the first concrete steps forward on the transition. For AT&T, that means a way to billions of dollars in saved costs and even more billions in potential new product and service offerings by converting to an all IP platform. For the public, it means the process will be measured not simply by how much it increases AT&T’s bottom line, but by how well it improves all our lives.
To borrow a maxim beloved of reflexive deregulators, “first do no harm.” Thanks to Commissioner Rosenworcel’s work in making values the metric for success, we can make sure that the IP Transition “does no harm.” While we clearly have a long way to go yet, we at least start on the right footing by declaring that an upgrade of the phone system must be an upgrade for all, not an upgrade for some and a downgrade for the rest.
The Heir To The Mantle of Michael Copps
I first met Commissioner Rosenworcel when she worked as an advisor to former Commissioner Michael Copps. Anyone who knows anything about the history of telecommunications policy of the last 15 years will know Michael Copps as one of the true lions of the public interest in one of its darkest hours. At a time when the forces of corporate power seemed ready to sweep away the last restraints on media consolidation, Commissioner Copps proved critical in rousing the public to push back against the tide. As recently as last week, in testimony before Congress on whether and how to rewrite our existing telecommunications, Copps showed how the public interest lion can still roar.
By bringing the transition of the phone system back to a focus on values, Commissioner Rosenworcel showed that she also has what it takes to carry the banner of the public interest. Until now, everyone has respected Rosenworcel for her depth of knowledge and policy expertise. But her quiet, determined style and her focus on critically important but wonky and technical things — such as expanding E-Rate and upgrading our public safety infrastructure for the 21st Century – have often caused people to underestimate her passion and effectiveness as a champion of the public interest.
Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel’s style is very different from that of Commissioner Michael Copps. But, as she has shown, Commissioner Rosenworcel is a worthy heir to his mantle.
Stay tuned . . .