PASADENA, Calif.- While largely unnoticed by most of us, the Federal Communications Commission looms large in our media-driven lives, regulating the communications devices like cell phones, pagers, and televisions that too often rule our lives.
Now Simon Wilkie, a senior research associate in economics at the California Institute of Technology, will help sort out the policy issues involved in various communications decisions when he assumes the position of chief economist for the FCC.
The Federal Communications Commission, established in 1934, is responsible for regulating interstate and international communications by radio, television, wire, satellite, and cable. As chief economist, it will be Wilkie's responsibility to provide independent, nonpartisan advice to the commissioners on various regulatory issues. Wilkie was selected for the position by Michael Powell, the FCC's chairman (and the son of secretary of defense Colin Powell).
As a regulatory body, Wilkie notes, the FCC makes policy decisions all the time. As a result, a good part of his job is assessing a proposed regulation, providing advice and making recommendations from an economic perspective.
"We sort through what is oftentimes conflicting advice given to the FCC, then provide guidance to the commissioners and the chairman."
He notes that Congress, for example, will mandate that the FCC should do certain things, like developing regulations for telephone network access by new market entrants. But, notes Wilkie, they don't spell out the specifics of how to do it. "Our job is to come up with the right formula that works, one that is fair to all concerned, and in the best interests of the public."
One of the first critical areas he will be involved with is developing a fair system for auctioning off high-speed bandwidth. This is the upper levels of the electromagnetic spectrum, the radio frequencies we know that give us such things as AM and FM radio, cell-phone communication, even garage door openers. The higher-wave frequencies, once reserved for government use, are much desired for various kinds of wireless communications, from voice to video and the Internet. It is expected to be a highly lucrative market, and the bidding is expected to be competitive. It will be Wilkie's job to develop an auction system that is fair to all, including smaller companies, again while ensuring that the final results are in the public's best interests.
Wilkie brings to the FCC what he describes in a self-effacing way as a "boring economic philosophy" that can best be described as studying the details.
"I believe that with each economic problem, the individual details of that problem are tremendously important," he says. "So in the traditional broad debate between market forces and government regulation, the wrong questions are often posed. By studying the specifics of each issue we can avoid the most significant policy failures."
Wilkie is an internationally recognized scholar with extensive experience in the communications industry. Before joining Caltech, he was a member of the technical staff and a postdoctoral fellow at Bell Communications Research (BellCore). He is also on the editorial board of the Journal of Public Economic Theory and has published widely on spectrum auctions, game theory, and telecommunications regulation.
Wilkie has been a Caltech faculty member since 1995. He received his undergraduate degree at the University of New South Wales in 1982, and his MA (1988) and PhD (1990) in economics at the University of Rochester. Wilkie's appointment will begin July 15. He will be taking sabbatical from Caltech.
[Note to editors: The FCC is issuing a separate news release on Wilkie's appointment. For more information, contact Robin Pence at 202-418-0505; RPENCE@fcc.gov.]