New FCC chief Tom Wheeler gets to work in a familiar place

Jason Reed/Reuters - New chairman of the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) Tom Wheeler at his White House nomination earlier this year.

For more than three decades, Tom Wheeler, the new chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, has come to the agency as a supplicant.

He lobbied regulators as the head of cable and wireless trade groups. He has sat on the boards of companies whose businesses rely on FCC permissions, including the Internet service provider EarthLink and the Public Broadcasting Service.

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Wheeler is so well known at the FCC and in the insular world of telecommunications policy that agency receptionists warmly welcomed him by name even before he identified himself. He counts many friends on staff. On Wednesday, the 67-year-old chairman was reminded of the many years he has spent walking through the agency doors.

When he got a new FCC badge, it included the description: “hair color: gray.”

“When I saw him type that in, I thought, ‘Oh, my God, talk about forever,’ ” Wheeler said, chuckling, in a telephone interview Wednesday.

In his first on-the-record interview since he was sworn in as chairman Monday, Wheeler said his priorities are to encourage the growth of the telecommunications industry, bolster competition, and make sure companies connect all Americans — including the poor and minorities — to broadband Internet service.

“If we don’t have the right kinds of networks to our schools, we’ve let people down. If we don’t have networks creating oppor­tunities for individuals with ­disabilities, we’ve let ourselves down,” he said.

His connections as a former lobbyist has drawn critics. Some consumer advocacy groups have said they worry he’ll put the interests of businesses above consumers. But other analysts say Wheeler’s deep experience in the arcane and insular world of telecom policy will help him sustain his mission, despite the intense pressure he will face from lobbyists and lawmakers who in the past have threatened to take funding away from the agency because of controversial regulations.

In the interview, Wheeler did not reveal a starkly new direction for the agency. He said one of his priorities will be to encourage competition and ensure the public is given access to communications services.

He pointed to a 2011 FCC decision to join with the Justice Department to stop AT&T’s merger with T-Mobile as a good example of how the agency can help foster competition in the market.

“Competition is the fastest way to get the extension of services and get proper pricing of services and speeds. But I recognize that competition doesn’t always happen in a vacuum and the job of the agency is to think of how it can protect competition and promote it where it exists. Those are places where we can do better,” he said.

Wheeler skirted controversial questions, including how he will manage a massive federal auction next year that will invite mobile broadband carriers to bid on television airwaves.

Some smaller carriers, including T-Mobile and Sprint, have argued that the FCC should set up rules that curb how much spectrum the nation’s two biggest carriers — Verizon and AT&T — can buy in the auction.

When asked whether he would put such limits on AT&T and Verizon, Wheeler was coy. “Gee, I’ve never been asked that question before,” he said. “Stay tuned.”

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