Please ensure Javascript is enabled for purposes of website accessibility

Zac Champ

By Laura Phillips

I first met Zac Champ when he worked at WIA, the Wireless Infrastructure Association where he had a variety of positions over the years in the public policy arena.  He joined the FCC in 2019 and currently is u. It was a pleasure to catch up with Zac, nerd out on JRR Tolkien, and get his perspectives on government service, public policy, and life. 

Q.        What attracted you to the field of communications?

A.         I’ve always been a tinkerer. As a middle-schooler, I would go to “computer fairs” with my dad, uncle, and younger brother to gather parts for our first computers. Our first computer was a 486 SX 33, something that probably had less computing power than a washing machine today. These computers would always break. Device drivers would conflict, you would have to spend hours configuring things, tweaking minute settings to get a better performance. I loved it. Later we got our first modem and I’d dial into my friend’s computer to play video games. There were so many bike rides back and forth to troubleshoot, and when someone picked up the phone, forget about it! When a local internet provider started offering service, I put my allowance and lawn mowing money into the dial-up connection’s subscription. Once online, I started building websites. That hobby became a small business in high school with the same friend that I’d ride my bike back and forth with, troubleshooting. Together, we would make the pitch around town that this thing called the internet was where businesses needed to be, it was the “Yellow pages” of the future. We were fairly successful, and we learned a lot!

Back then, it all felt like the Wild West. There seemed to be a huge disconnect between how the pre-internet world functioned in an ever-connecting world. The folks in tech seemed to be manifesting magic with every new release. And the questions being considered were big ones, what does online currency mean, what is an online identity, what are the rights of content owners, what does freedom of information mean in the internet age? It was fascinating and I wanted to be a part of it.

Q.        Talk a bit about what you did along the way to get where you are today.

A.         In college, I put the web design company on the shelf, and while I kept up with the technology changes, I also didn’t know specifically what I wanted to do. This is probably why I ended up with a Political Science degree. After graduation, I worked full time for one of my previous website clients. I built out their e-commerce site, stitched together all their inventory, accounting, and shipping systems, and put their product on Amazon as one of the first affiliates ever. It was all interesting, but I knew I did not want to do this sort of work forever.

Eventually I decided to make a big change and ended up enrolling at Syracuse College of Law in 2007. While there, I met a select-few that were also trying to work in a space where law and technology intersected. Jenn Holtz and Chris Naoum were two of the leaders of a small group that created the Communications Law & Policy Society (CLPS). From the start, CLPS tapped into the FCBA. A who’s who of FCBA heavy hitters would make their way up to the cold and snow of Syracuse, NY to participate in multi-day conferences. It provided unique access for learning and mentorship. I threw myself into planning and hosting these CLPS events and it’s from there I got my first internships in the communications field. 

I graduated from Syracuse with a dual degree, law and a master’s in public administration. But the economy at the time didn’t do me any favors. The 2008 financial crisis put a hold on many of the usual entry-level hires in the field. My law school internships funneled me down to the DMV where much of the interesting tech and communications policy work was. Eventually, I ended up with a job at a technology trade association. The pay was low, but the work focused on interesting areas that included cloud computing, and cyber security. 

Next, I worked at the WIA, which was then PCIA. WIA was doing more straight-ahead legal work with the FCC and other agencies. It was a small team when I started, basically one or two newly minted attorneys. However, with all that was happening in wireless, the industry matured quickly during my tenure, and there were more and more entities to engage with as time went on. By the time I had left as the head of the government affairs department, the association’s revenue had tripled and the team that I led had grown to six people. It was exciting to have the opportunity to work on important federal regulations and legislation, as well as standing up a national state government affairs program active in state capitals across the country. This last part resulted in over thirty states enacting model wireless infrastructure legislation that our team crafted. It was even more rewarding to build-out a team and contribute to the culture and values of the government affairs shop. The team consistently outperformed, doing more with less than its counterparts. I am proud, but not surprised, that so many of the folks that I worked alongside with at that time have continued to go on to do amazing things.

I enjoyed what we accomplished and the people I worked with at WIA, but after the better part of a decade, I wanted to see things more directly from the public-interest side. I joined the FCC in 2019 as Chief of Staff of the Consumer and Governmental Affairs Bureau. Today, I’m in the bureau’s Consumer Policy Division (CPD), working more directly on items as they move through the agency. The FCC is a very different place than WIA, and I am working on a different subset of communications issues, but it has been very interesting. Like a startup, it can be a resource constrained environment, but it is a large organization within the even larger federal system that necessarily operates in ways that cannot be described as “nimble.” On the plus side, I feel that the work we do makes a measurable, positive difference for consumers. Some of it even my mom can understand!

Q.        Have things unfolded in your career more or less the way you planned?

A.         That’s a hard one to answer. In a different world I feel I could have just as easily ended up in filmmaking, software development, or been more closely tied into the realm of politics. Looking back, I had an overall sense of where I wanted to end up, but at each turn I recall how often when you enter large academic and social settings, other people’s plans and general expectations can create noise and confusion. For example, in law school, the setup is for general litigation and time in a court room. And, when you start fresh and many are already choosing to head down that path, you think, ‘Why not me, I can do this.’ It is not a bad thing, but it’s challenging if you think you know what you want to do, and the expected path might not really play to your strengths or interests.

In looking back, now that I’m older than I could ever have imagined when I was building my first computer, there’s not only a general sense of nostalgia about days gone by, but how I felt about technology was different then too. I think when I got involved in tech, there was a lot more positivity and optimism. Sure, there were the copyright and privacy fights, but there was an overarching sense that what tech was doing was providing more access and a more even playing field for all. Today, access is nearing ubiquity, but there are new threats and costs associated with technologies that have become commonplace. In those days “On the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog.” Today, a bot farm using AI and an array of GPUs can deep fake their way into a regime change. I guess what I’m saying is that the journey of a life and career is long, and even if you arrive at your destination, the world keeps moving too. It’s not the same place it once was so we all must continue to assess and figure things out as we go along.

Q.        What’s the most interesting or challenging thing that you’ve done in your current position?

A.         I’ll take most interesting first. I enjoy the opportunity to work on the issues affecting Americans in a very direct way. The work of CPD is squarely within the interest of consumers. It’s an area where existing and emerging tech have both opportunities and risks. For example, how do you ensure consumers know what they are purchasing, how does a Consumer Broadband Label help with this? What does generative AI mean for a consumer’s risk of being defrauded? How can these same technologies that are used to harm people also be used to combat bad actors? How do you tackle the harm and annoyance of robocalls and robotexts in an effective way?

With respect to challenges, large organizations like the FCC have entrenched systems and unique bureaucracy. Doing things quickly while keeping all interested parties informed and navigating the politics can be frustrating. Progress can be slow. It brings to mind a mantra of one of my public administration professors. It was that “collaboration sucks” but that it’s necessary for better outcomes and creating shared expectations. In large organizations you have a variety of cultures and experiences. It’s something you have to recognize in order to be successful. And success often means you have to check your ego at the door and embrace teamwork and the process by which projects get done.

Q.        Is there something interesting or someone who surprised or impressed you during your career and why?

A.         Early on I was surprised about how many of the leaders in the communications bar entered the space seemingly by chance. I heard so many communications law origin stories that went something like this. “I was working as a summer associate hoping to do [fill in the blank] and a partner had me do this new telecom thing that no one had a clue about. I’ve been doing this thing for 20 years.”

I’m continually impressed by the character and collegiality of the FCBA as a whole. I count many in the FCBA as my friends and mentors. I think the recognition that the space is constantly changing contributes to that, we are a bunch of flexible, lifelong learners. I am not going to mention everyone I could, as there are just so many folks who have gone out of their way to assist or mentor others that I’ve encountered over the years.

Q.        What do you enjoy reading?

A.         I finally got around to reading JRR Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings. It was everything that fans say it is. Also, to my view, Tom Bombadil is the man! 

I also have been picking away at “The Rise and Fall of the American Whig Party:  Jacksonian Politics and the Onset of the Civil War”. That is another discussion, but if you thought for a moment that anything this nation is going though now is new, this book will read like a contemporary analysis. So, from my perspective, the Lord of the Rings was more enjoyable.

Q.        Can you share perspective on the pitfalls to avoid or other career advice for those who are just getting started in the communications field?

A.         I feel like a lot of the educational structures are designed to funnel you into singular specialist roles. For a long time, I felt like my varied interests and curiosities were a weakness and that I fell into the “a jack of all trades is a master of none” camp and that that was a negative thing. But, in my career at least, it has paid dividends. I can speak and work effectively in a number of different settings. I’m not overwhelmed by technology and the pace of its change. Obviously, you have to be competent in your given field, but it’s the peripheral knowledge and experience that can set you apart.

As for specific career advice, as a geriatric millennial now, it’s bending towards cliché; do what you have a passion about. Surround yourself with people who are positive and drive you forward, be open for new experiences, and hammer into your head that change is a constant. That there are no static platforms or careers. And finally, and this can help when things are tough, bad experiences, bad bosses, bad communication, difficult colleagues, all of it — these bad experiences are things you can learn from. Take note of these difficulties and how they made you feel. Then work to avoid those behaviors when you have the opportunity to be a leader or contributor to a project.

Q.        Has anything changed in your life because of the pandemic?

A.         Everything has. We had our first child in the height of the pandemic. It was all extremely difficult. We were thankful to have family to lean on, but at the same time they were very far away. Those were some scary isolating times.

How we work and live has forever changed. Expectations have all shifted. And it seems like the ever-present inter-generational battles about what work is, how it is prioritized in our lives, and how it gets done all are under deeper focus by workers and employers. Overall, for me I think it cemented a need for greater self-reliance and self-direction for those things that are within my control. I had hoped the shared experience of the pandemic would have brought us all together and leave us more united. I’m afraid that instead, in the present at least, we can’t even agree on the facts of what happened.

Q.        What is something interesting about you that people are not generally aware of that you’re willing to share?

A.         Well, I’ve been to multiple Lebowski Fests.

Q.        How long have you been in FCBA member and what is the value of FCBA membership?

A.         I was a student member of the FCBA in law school back in 2007. To me the value of membership is the convening power of the association. There is great value in participating in the standing and expected meetings of colleagues across the tech and telecom sector. It’s hard to keep up with folks that you know and like with everything else going on in your career and personal life, but the FCBA creates many opportunities for people to stay in touch, make new connections, and educate themselves. I have particularly fond memories of being a part of the Young Lawyers Committee.