WASHINGTON-Dan Phythyon, acting chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, does not want to characterize himself or his staff as “the James Brown of the commission.” He modestly holds that his domain is “a hardworking bureau like other hardworking bureaus” contained within the FCC.
Phythyon has been acting chief for less than two months. He took the position over from outgoing chief Michele Farquhar following his reassignment to the WTB from the commission’s Office of Legislative and Intergovernmental Affairs in January, and he admits that he now is in a learning curve that he hopes will not end.
“It was a surprise to me, since I was last in the bureau six months ago, about how many things I didn’t know and how many things have changed since I directed my energies elsewhere,” he told RCR. “I don’t expect my learning ever to stop here, but that’s the great thing about this bureau and it was great to come back.”
Phythyon has taken over an office that continues to ponder a number of pressing industry issues, including tower siting, RF emission standards, public safety, the future of auctions, emerging technologies and the like, and many industry observers have noted that the commission is not acting as quickly and as forcefully as it should to answer urgent demands. While his predecessor had noted that part of the problem stemmed from constant staff churn at the bureau level, Phythyon disagrees with that assessment.
“The timing of the bureau’s work and the commission’s work is controlled by a number of internal and external factors. Staffing is one factor but by no means the only factor. One thing is that many of these issues are not simple,” he said. “We’re involved in complex policy decisions that affect existing and future industry concerns. This bureau is about promoting future competition, so the issues are not simple from the outside. They are fiercely fought over within the industry and across industry lines. They could involve potential satellite usage that would involve the International Bureau.”
In light of growing interbureau dealings that are a result of the changing domestic and international communications environment, some pending rulemakings and petitions could be affected by the upcoming World Trade Agreement implementation that begins Jan. 1, 1998, which includes a change in foreign-ownership rules. With the amount of capital commitment wireless carriers will be needing to build out new, competitive networks, could the bureau hold off on certain orders for another seven months?
“With respect to WTO, we are coordinating closely with the International Bureau about rulemakings to make sure we do our part,” Phythyon said. “Right now, we are learning what it takes to implement that issue and what things will be like during the transition time. We are working as actively as we can and are not holding back.”
He continued, “I think that it is not a binary issue-that anything before Jan. 1 is black and everything after is white. It may be more appropriate to see if there are interim steps that can be taken. Specifically with NextWave (Telecom Inc.), they have filed a waiver [for an increase in foreign ownership] and we will attempt to turn around our decision on this and other future waivers as soon as we can.”
The siting issue and its sister, RF exposure rules, are on the front burner with Phythyon, who explained that they are a subset of Congress’ mandated deployment plan. FCC Chairman Reed Hundt has contacted all local jurisdictions that have some sort of moratorium in place, and their answers are being evaluated by the commission to formulate a rulemaking.
“Congress set out a policy to promote competition as soon as possible and as quickly as possible, and siting is an especially difficult issue,” he said. “We have to partner with state and local governments to make this process work. Where we are going with that rulemaking is to spell out these issues. This bureau is at ground zero when it comes to deployment issues and related aspects. I can’t give you the bottom line as far as how this thing will work out. I can only tell you we are on the road right now.”
The commission could go two ways regarding siting and other issues that involve the public directly, which could bring about questions regarding the FCC’s real role. Should the agency be an industry advocate or should it come down strongly on the side of public interest? Phythyon is not torn.
“Clearly, the commission’s role is the one Congress has given it-to promote the public interest,” he said. “In some cases, that may mean that issues fall to the side of industry and in others they fall to the side of the public. We cannot promote any industry’s agenda.”
The bureau also is working with the full commission to come up with a plan to change administration of installment debt from the FCC’s auction program from that agency to one better equipped to handle financial issues, like the U.S. Treasury. “The chairman has been very open in saying that the commission is conflicted between our job of managing the spectrum and regulating the licensing process, and how we currently have to collect debt in addition to those other jobs,” he said. “It’s no secret that debt collection responsibilities should be handed over to those better equipped to do so.”
Also on Phythyon’s plate is how public safety can benefit from the newly released digital television allocation plan, which could turn over some channels in the 60-69 range for public-safety use. “This plan could give some prime spectrum to public-safety entities,” he said. “This would line up with what the Public Safety Wireless Advisory Council and Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) want.”
On the auction front, Phythyon is worried, but not about the form and function of the FCC’s bidding process but rather on what the industry, Wall Street and consumers think when they hear about the financial problems surrounding some auction winners. “Auctions, without question, will continue to be a success as a tool to get licenses out quickly. No one should conclude that auctions are a failure,” he said. “It’s hard for us to figure out what the relationship is between the auction process and financial distress. Winners need to raise funds both to construct and operate, and also to make their installment payments. Pocket Communications Inc. always kept up with its installment payments, so we don’t see the connection.” Pocket recently filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.
Phythyon believes that Congress will continue to bless auctions by renewing the FCC’s authority, and that the commission will continue to experiment with new and better auction methodologies. To help out some private wireless concerns, which have expressed their problems with the auction process, Phythyon hopes that the FCC will get authorization from Congress to implement spectrum lease fees, as has been suggested by at least one private wireless group, the Industrial Telecommunications Association.
“My own opinion is that fees should not be used only for newly allocated spectrum,” Phythyon said. “We can create incentives for other people to use their spectrum more efficiently. We should have that authority but it should not be restricted. But we aren’t just going to sit on our hands in the interim; we will be working with the industry to find new solutions.”
If Phythyon is successful in getting the “acting” part out of his title, he will be the third WTB chief in two years. He plans to take the work load in stride, but for how long? He played down rumors the bureau has a “meat grinder” reputation and that he already has told the chairman his tenure would not be long.
“Are we a pressure cooker? Yes, we work hard but we are no different than any other bureau,” he reiterated. “Obviously, how long I am in is not in my control. For the parts of the commitment that are within my control, the chairman is satisfied with m
ine. I expect to have many pleasant conversations with (the press) for man
y months in the future.”