Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology at the Federal Communications Commission
Born c. 1943. Education: Rensselaer Polytechnic University, B.S. and M.S.; Pace University, M.B.A.
Addresses: Office —Office of Engineering & Technology, Federal Communications Commission, 445 12th St. SW, Washington, DC 20554.
President of science and technology for Bell Atlantic; president and CEO of telecommunications company RSL USA; chief of the Federal Communications Commission's Office of Engineering and Technology, 2002—.
Awards: Named one of the 50 most influential people in long distance by Phone Plus Magazine, 1998; included in Forbes magazine's E-Gang of luminaries in wireless communication, 2003.
Innovators trying to develop new, faster, easier ways for people and their computers to communicate have a friend in government. Edmond J. Thomas, engineering and technology chief for the Federal Communications Commission (FCC), is trying to clear away technical barriers and open more of the broadcast airwaves to new technologies. He is a former executive for telecommunications companies, so he is as far as possible from the stereotype of the government regulator whose old rules get in the way of fast-paced change. Thomas tries to throw the old rules out the window when he can.
"I want to start creating places where American innovation can go forward," Thomas told Forbes magazine's Scott Woolley. "[I'm] a techie businessman in regulator's clothing." New-technology companies love him for that, but older, established industries and organizations are rising up in opposition to Thomas' efforts, afraid his efforts might cause interference on the parts of the broadcast spectrum they used to have to themselves.
His history in business is part of Thomas' appeal: he wants to clear the way for new invention because he is an innovator himself. Thomas, who has bachelor's and master's degrees from Rensselaer Polytechnic University and a masters in business administration from Pace University, holds several patents in data and voice communications and developed the first telephony-based speech recognition system. He spent 35 years at technology and telecommunications companies, serving as president of science and technology for Bell Atlantic (now Verizon), in charge of developing new products and services. In his last job before joining the federal government, he was president and chief executive officer of telecommunications company RSL USA. Under his leadership, RSL USA grew five-fold in one year, to $500 million in revenue, up from $120 million.
FCC chairman Michael K. Powell offered a clue about what he expected from Thomas when he named him chief of the commission's Office of Engineering and Technology (OET) in January of 2002. Thomas, Powell said, would prepare the OET "to take on sweeping, fast-paced changes that characterize the industries we regulate ." Soon, it became clear that Powell expected Thomas' office itself to make sweeping, fast-paced changes. Powell and Thomas began rewriting FCC rules to open up the airwaves.
In February of 2002, Thomas helped institute new rules on ultrawideband technology. Ultrawideband spreads its low-power radio signals across many frequencies, including a lot that are already being used. Cell phone companies, airlines, and the military all protested to Thomas, but he insisted that studies showed ultrawideband's pulsing signals were so faint that they would not interfere with other signals. "The reason we got it through is we had good science to back it," Thomas told Woolley of Forbes. "I don't want to hurt the incumbents [those who were already using a frequency] but I'm not going to accept subjective arguments." In August of 2003, when Thomas took reporters on a rare tour of the FCC's engineering lab, he was still promoting ultrawideband. He showed off ultrawideband devices the FCC was testing, including radar devices that can look into the ground, and he used a global positioning system device right in front of one, to show that ultrawideband did not cause any interference.
Thomas often argues that longtime users of the airwaves are overreacting, protecting their turf, and ignoring evidence that new technology can share their space on the broadcast spectrum without interference. For instance, Thomas and the FCC also increased the amount of the spectrum available to Wi-Fi, or wireless fidelity technology, which gives computer users fast, wireless Internet access in places such as cafes and airports. The new frequencies were taken from the military and from unused parts of the spectrum. By 2004, the FCC was moving to let wireless Internet services take over unused television frequencies between Channels 5 and 51, and Thomas was helping Powell justify the idea. When television broadcasters complained that Wi-Fi could interfere with their signals, Thomas told the Chicago Tribune 's Jon Van that smart Wi-Fi technology can sense other signals and move to unused frequencies.
In June of 2004, the FCC cleared the way for another innovation: broadband over power lines (BPL), which lets computer users access the Internet through high-speed modems plugged into their electrical outlets. Some observers say BPL could be a cheaper alternative than high-speed cable and telephone Internet connections, especially in rural areas where cable TV is not offered. Thomas raved about BPL's possibilities to the Christian Science Monitor 's Brad Rosenberg, in the sort of speculation usually heard from young, hopeful tech-geek visionaries, not regulators in their sixties. "If every power plug in your house becomes a broadband connection, that means that almost anything you plug into the wall can connect to the Internet," he said. "That means that your refrigerator can have a meaningful conversation with the supermarket and say, 'Hi, I need milk.' Or you could call your house and say, 'I'm coming home in two hours, turn the air conditioner on.' It's only restricted by imagination."
Amateur radio operators, also known as hams, said BPL interferes with their signals, because power lines have less shielding than phone and cable lines, so more signals spill out. They pointed to other countries where BPL was rejected for interfering with existing signals. Thomas insisted they did not have their facts straight. "What was banned in Japan is very old technology," he told the Christian Science Monitor 's Rosenberg.
While he fights those battles, Thomas is lending his office's expertise to a much more literal war. He told Bloomberg.com's Neil Roland that the FCC will help the Defense Department try to invent technology to interfere with remote-controlled bombs in Iraq. Small bombs detonated by cell phones or electrical charges are killing more United States soldiers in Iraq than any other weapons, according to the Army. A congressman asked Powell to get the FCC to help the military build a device, to be placed on military vehicles, that could interfere with signals between cell phones and bombs. Thomas says the FCC is willing to try. "I certainly don't know how to design that device. But people are looking into it to see what we can do," he told Roland.
BusinessWeek, April 22, 2002; December 15, 2003.
Chicago Tribune, March 21, 2004, p. 1.
Christian Science Monitor, April 26, 2004, p. 16.
Forbes, September 1, 2003, p. 103; September 6, 2004, p. 52.
USA Today, May 13, 2004.
Wall Street Journal, March 23, 2004, p. A1; May 14, 2004, p. A1.
Washington Post, November 14, 2003, p. E1.
"Edmond J. Thomas to be Appointed Chief of the Office of Engineering and Technology," Federal Communications Commission, http://www.fcc.gov/Bureaus/Engineering_Technology/News_Releases/2002/nret0201.html (September 4, 2004)
"FCC Joins DoD to Devise Ways to Counter Iraq Bombings," Bloomberg.com, http://quote.bloomberg.com (September 6, 2004).
"Official touts FCC's UWB work," RCR News, http://rcrnews.com (September 6, 2004)
"Prepared Witness Testimony," House Committee on Energy and Commerce, http://energycommerce.house.gov/108/Hearings/06112003hearing951/Thomas1528.htm (September 6, 2004).
"Report: Fourth Meeting of FCC Technological Advisory Council II," FCC Technological Advisory Council, http://www.fcc.gov/oet/tac/april26-02-docs/tac4-26report.pdf (September 6, 2004)