President Obama’s pick to head the Federal Communications Commission on Tuesday told Senate lawmakers that his decades of heading lobbying groups will bring important business sensibilities to the oversight of a communications industry undergoing a massive technological transition.
Before a generally welcoming Senate commerce committee, Tom Wheeler said telecom policy has helped create competition, but he cautioned that the FCC’s rules could also put “a brake on innovation.”
The long telecom industry résuméof Wheeler, a friend of the president and a campaign fundraiser, has drawn criticism from public interest advocates. They worry that Wheeler may put consumers on the back burner with his sights set on completing an airwaves auction next year that will help wireless carriers bolster their networks and enrich television broadcasters.
“American consumers need an FCC chairman who champions meaningful reforms, including universal access to affordable and quality broadband, as well as robust competition in telecom services,” said Sascha Meinrath, head of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation think tank.
Wheeler used his Senate confirmation hearing — his first chance to elaborate on his background and outline his priorities in a public forum — to defend his business ties. He said his leadership of the wireless group CTIA and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association took place during periods when wireless and cable firms were underdogs, trying to break into markets dominated by phone companies.
“What I have learned from my business experience will make me a better chairman, should the Senate confirm my nomination,” Wheeler said. He said his focus as chairman would be to encourage competition and extend broadband as a public service to emergency responders, schools and the disabled.
“Competition is a power unto itself that must be encouraged,” he said. “Competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets.”
Wheeler defended earlier writings in his personal blog, in which he appeared to support AT&T’s bid for T-Mobile as long as there were sufficient conditions on the merger. AT&T dropped its $39 billion bid in 2011 after opposition from the FCC and the Justice Department.
When asked if he would use merger conditions as a way to more broadly regulate the telecom market, Wheeler said his 2011 blog posts were “hypothetical speculation.”
“What a regulator must deal with are realities of a specific case and the law and precedent that deals with merger review,” he said.
During the hearing, committee Chairman John D. Rockefeller IV (D-W.Va.) indicated that Wheeler’s confirmation is likely. Lawmakers posed few difficult questions, even as the FCC is being challenged in courts on its ability to regulate broadband services. When asked about increasingly contentious fee negotiations between broadcasters and cable networks, he said he would look into the issue. Wheeler also avoided giving a specific opinion on new media ownership rules — controversial reforms that could help smaller broadcasters and newspapers gain new investments but also lead to media consolidation among a handful of conglomerates.
“I am specifically trying not to be specific,” he said when asked about media consolidation.
Wheeler said his priority would be carrying out a highly complicated airwaves auction aimed for next year.
The plan, inherited from Congress and the last FCC chairman, Julius Genachowski, is like a “Rubik’s Cube” with its many moving parts, Wheeler said. Broadcast television stations have to agree to sell their airwaves for a cut in the auction proceeds. The prices and swaths available for purchase have to be attractive enough for wireless carriers to simultaneously bid on which television airwaves become available.
“This is a monumental undertaking,” Wheeler said. “This is why it’s never been done before.”
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