Wheeler Names his Lawyers

New FCC chairman Tom Wheeler wasted no time making staff appointments immediately after being sworn in today, unveiling a slate of 12 appointments to positions in the chairman’s office and to other parts of the agency:

  1. Ruth Milkman, Chief of Staff
  2. Philip Verveer, Senior Counselor to the Chairman
  3. Gigi B. Sohn, Special Counsel for External Affairs
  4. Diane Cornell, Special Counsel
  5. Jon Sallet, Interim Director of the Technology Transitions Policy Task Force and eventually General Counsel
  6. Jon Wilkins, Acting Manager Director and Advisor to the Chairman for Management
  7. Roger Sherman, Acting Chief of the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau
  8. Daniel Alvarez, legal advisor to the Chairman with responsibility for issues in the Wireline Competition and Public Safety and Homeland Security Bureaus
  9. Renee Gregory, legal advisor to the Chairman, with responsibility for issues in the Office of Engineering and Technology and the Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, as well as incentive auction issues
  10. Maria Kirby, legal advisor to the Chairman, with responsibility for issues in the Media, Consumer and Governmental Affairs and Enforcement Bureaus
  11. Deborah Ridley, Confidential Assistant to the Chairman
  12. Sagar Doshi, Special Assistant to the Chairman

A number of these folks have extensive pedigrees with the FCC, the cable and wireless industries, Congress, and the Administration.  Milkman has worked in a number of roles with the FCC since the 1980s, most notably as an advisor to Chairman Reed Hundt and as chief of the wireless bureau. She’s a lawyer who founded her own firm between FCC gigs.

Verveer served at the FCC as head of the cable division (among other jobs) in the past, and was recently an ambassador-level international IP czar in the Obama administration.

Sohn’s appointment has attracted the most attention. She’s known for her passionate advocacy of her causes and for presumed close ties to Google, but it’s easy to make too much of the latter. Her appointment to a government job is not surprising to those who’ve seen her operate in Washington where she pops up on boards, attends conferences, and testifies at hearings all the time. She’s fond of saying she introduced the last chairman to his wife and is very much the most inside of the public interest lobby’s DC insiders. There’s no question that her voice was going to be part of the debate on the FCC’s pending issues one way or another.

Ed Wyatt of the New York Times says Cornell is a former Wheeler protege at CTIA and advisor to three FCC chairmen. Wow.

Jon Sallet was one of Al Gore’s Internet advisors, so he’s been around for a long time as well. Sallet formulated the Value Circle theory of Internet businesses, a very interesting perspective on the roles of different kinds of firms in the Internet space. If you’re a free market advocate with a belief in strong IP rights, Sallet and Verveer just may be the counter-balance to Sohn that you’d like to see. And yes, it takes two.

Roger Sherman is somebody who’s well known in DC, very experienced, and a solid appointment. Most recently, he was Democratic Chief Counsel to the House Energy & Commerce committee and Staff Director to its Communications and Technology subcommittee. He ‘s worked for Congressman Waxman among others, and was Regulatory Affairs director at Sprint for many years.

In some ways, these appointments were easy: these folks represent the full span of opinion on policy and regulation that the Democratic Party bench has to offer, ranging from relatively hands-off, market centric people to those with the hands-on, direct regulatory involvement at every step kind of people. Wheeler stopped short of adding people with the most extreme views his party has to offer: there aren’t any Free Press people who want to nationalize broadband and mobile networks, nor are there any folks who want an unregulated, laissez-faire communications marketplace.

This group of lawyers will provide Tom Wheeler with a variety of perspectives, which was probably the point of their selection.

Now we’ll see what the Chairman does with the economists and technologists who understand FCC issues in rather a different – and dare I say – “deeper” way than lawyers do. The FCC is supposed to be the nation’s expert agency on broadband, mobile, and cable, but some of the agency’s recent decisions have been more “because I say so” than astute expert insights. In particular, the FCC’s refusal to recognize the “effectively competitive” nature of the mobile marketplace has been wrong, and some of the politically expedient decisions it has made on spectrum have been short-sighted, such as its assignment of dedicated spectrum to hospital-oriented Bluetooth-like devices. Its Open Internet order was simply unnecessary, but it’s likely to be overturned by the court.

Looking ahead, the FCC has to get the spectrum incentive auction on track and to push the IP transition forward. After the court decision on the Open Internet rules comes down, it may face a decision point as well.

Assuming the court says it overstepped its authority, it can either say “sorry, I won’t do that again” and ask Congress for more authority, it can try to re-frame its authority in a different way (by reclassifying wired broadband as a Title II common carrier service, for example) or it can admit there’s no pressing need to do anything to broadband beyond encouraging more people to sign up and helping the poor and rural with their bills.

In any case, net neutrality remains a very distracting debate to which there’s no good answer because the concept essentially contradicts itself. Here’s a panel discussion with Gigi Sohn, Larry Downes, Mike Masnick and yours truly on the “Keen On” TechCrunch web show made the day the FCC announced its intention to impose Open Internet regulations on broadband ISPs. The video doesn’t seem to be working, but we’re not much to look at anyhow.