Mr. Peha Goes To Washington

Bridging the gap between engineering and public policy

6 March 2009

Five months into his U.S. government job, IEEE Senior Member Jon M. Peha has already become a federal man of mystery. “I can’t tell you what I’m working on,” he says, laughing.

In October, Peha was named chief technologist of the U.S. Federal Communications Commission, in Washington, D.C. He serves as a senior adviser on communications technology and policy to the FCC chairman and commissioners.

He may not be allowed to specify the details of his work, but one thing’s for sure: There’s been plenty of it. That’s thanks to the switch in the United States from analog to digital TV signals. The changeover—scheduled for last month but delayed until June—would improve broadcast quality and free up spectrum that was allocated to television for commercial wireless services, public safety communications, and other uses.

For two decades, Peha has tracked social and policy issues emerging from the evolution of computers and telecommunications networks from such vantage points as a start-up chief technology officer, government worker, and academic. He has authored numerous papers on communications systems to be used for homeland security and public safety, spectrum management, and making the Internet available to everyone in the United States and developing nations. Peha is also a professor in the departments of engineering and public policy and electrical and computer engineering at Carnegie Mellon University, in Pittsburgh. And he served as associate director of its Center for Wireless and Broadband Networking.

A NEW POLICY The change in spectrum policy will lead to “the development of two kinds of devices that have never been allowed to exist before,” Peha says. For decades, regulators strictly limited access to spectrum allocated for broadcast television, for fear of interference. But TV technology has evolved, and the FCC opted in November to allow two kinds of devices to operate within the TV spectrum. The first is a low-power mobile device and the second is a high-power fixed device, both of which can operate in the TV band as long as they don’t interfere with TV signals. In addition, the fixed device is especially useful in rural areas where more TV spectrum is available. Given its greater range, it might be used to bring broadband Internet services to places where DSL and cable are unavailable.

CROSSROADS Peha had no idea what he wanted to major in at college. He paid his tuition by working part-time as a software programmer for numerous companies, including Microsoft, and as a research assistant at AT&T Bell Laboratories. He had a knack for technology, so he figured, Why not keep at it? He earned a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering and computer science in 1984 at Brown University, in Providence, R.I., and a master’s in electrical engineering from Stanford in 1986. He then took an 18-month detour to study history, political science, and literature at Jagiellonian University in Kraków, Poland, and backpack around Europe. He returned to Silicon Valley in 1987 and became a computer scientist at SRI International, in Menlo Park, Calif. While there he joined IEEE and went on to earn a Ph.D. in EE in 1991 from Stanford.

After graduating, Peha became an assistant professor at Carnegie Mellon, working his way to full professor. He later became increasingly involved with IEEE, serving as editor of IEEE Communications Magazine and becoming a member of the editorial board of IEEE Spectrum and of the IEEE-USA Committee on Communications Policy, a role he had to relinquish to take the FCC position. “I realized that IEEE events and publications were essential to my understanding of what was changing in my field,” he says.

In between teaching and doing research, Peha also got involved in government. He worked for the House Committee on Energy and Commerce, handling telecommunications and e-commerce legislation and later working for Ron Wyden, a Democratic senator from Oregon, on similar issues in the Senate. He served at the U.S. Agency for Inter-national Development, helping to launch a program to assist developing countries with their information infrastructure. He also was CTO for three high-tech start-ups involved with e-commerce technologies, wireless networks, and video conferencing.

For Peha, engineering and public policy go hand in hand. “Both are about finding useful solutions to challenging and complicated problems and working on things that will make a difference, whether it’s changing policy or advancing a new technology,” he says. “Each requires what an engineer would call systems-level engineering, considering things that are interacting with each other in complicated ways. I started as a pure engineer but became interdisciplinary, which is an advantage in the realms of policy and technology.”

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