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New FCC chair Mignon Clyburn steps out: how turbulent will her short tenure be?

New FCC chair Mignon Clyburn steps out: how turbulent will her short tenure be?


At CTIA, Clyburn's keynote speech shows shades of Julius Genachowski

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Mignon Clyburn
Mignon Clyburn

At a keynote speech at CTIA in Las Vegas today — her first since becoming interim chairwoman of the FCC just yesterday — Mignon Clyburn joked that fill-in chairpeople aren't supposed to take risks. "So what do I do? I board a plane for Las Vegas," she joked.

Clyburn's speech definitely wasn't taking big risks

But blackjack and roulette aside, Clyburn's speech definitely wasn't taking big risks, staying unwaveringly on-message with the speeches that just-departed chairman Julius Genachowski delivered at CTIA and elsewhere in years past. Clyburn boasted about successes with recent FCC initiatives, noting that 97 percent of American wireless consumers now receive usage alerts to mitigate bill shock, for example. She noted that the wireless incentive auction — intended to pay television broadcasters for spectrum that can be reused for broadband — is on track for 2014. She brought up the competitive landscape, seemingly happy with it, just as Julius Genachowski always was when he would note the "virtuous cycle" that had been responsible for unprecedented growth in smartphone uptake and data usage during his tenure.

In many ways, Clyburn sounded like an extension of Genachowski himself.

"[We have taken a] light regulatory touch, but have touched when necessary," Clyburn said, perhaps a gesture to the FCC's high-profile intervention in AT&T's failed bid to buy T-Mobile.

Clyburn boasts the FCC has taken a "light regulatory touch, but have touched when necessary"

Indeed, a touch may very well be necessary before nominee Tom Wheeler is confirmed by the Senate. A number of hot policy issues sit on Clyburn's plate, including the specter of threats from CBS and Fox to go cable-only if Aereo isn't shut down, a move that could drastically alter the outcome of the wireless incentive auction. And just last week, AT&T's blockade of video calling in Google's new Hangouts app on Android presents a new regulatory edge case. Just how deeply and directly the interim chairwoman will need to take these on during her brief tenure is unclear — theoretically, Wheeler could be in the seat in just weeks if everything goes smoothly.

But in the most turbulent case, flying to Vegas could be the least risky thing Clyburn does this year.