Obama to nominate telecom executive Tom Wheeler to chair FCC


Tom Wheeler, former president and CEO for Cellular Telecom & Internet Association (CTIA). (LORI CAIN/BLOOMBERG NEWS)
April 30, 2013

President Obama is expected to nominate Tom Wheeler, a friend and telecom industry executive, as head of the Federal Communications Commission as early as Wednesday, three people familiar with the administration’s decision said.

Wheeler, a venture capital investor, would take over an agency struggling to keep up with enormous changes in the telecom industry as consumers turn to mobile devices and ultra-fast broadband Internet for news, communications and video entertainment.

Those policy issues would be fresh on the mind of the FCC nominee, who has served as adviser to the White House and the FCC on technology policy and industry trends.

But to the dismay of some critics, Wheeler comes with deep ties to the nation’s biggest telecom lobbying groups. He has served as head of the wireless industry’s CTIA trade group and the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, among the most powerful and deep-pocketed lobbying groups in Washington.

“I am skeptical that the former chief lobbyist of the wireless and cable industries will be capable of holding his former clients accountable for their ongoing shortcomings,” said Sascha Meinrath, head of the Open Technology Institute at the New America Foundation think tank.

Wheeler sits on the board of EarthLink, and his investment firm, Core Capital Partners, has invested in wireless equipment and data center technology firms.

That range of industry experience, some experts say, shows a diversity of experience that may benefit an agency in need of greater technological and business expertise.

“He can’t be pigeon-holed,” said Gigi Sohn, president of consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge. “He’s had a wide variety of experiences and has worked with competitive companies as well as incumbents. I truly believe he will be independent and thoughtful.”

The White House may also name sitting Democratic commissioner Mignon Clyburn to serve as interim chairman during Wheeler’s Senate confirmation process, the three people said, speaking on the condition of anonymity because the decisions have not been made public.

Outgoing chairman Julius Genachowski is expected to officially leave after the agency’s next public meeting on May 9.

Genachowski, who made the expansion of broadband an FCC priority, leaves Wheeler with much unfinished business.

Wheeler will inherit a contentious and drawn-out battle to auction television airwaves to wireless carriers to expand their networks. It’s unclear whether TV stations are willing to sell this spectrum to make the auction, expected to take place next year, a success.

As chairman, Wheeler may also have to weigh in on the fast-changing television landscape, where traditional business models of cable and broadcast networks are being shaken up by online video providers.

Several mergers will also come before the FCC chairman for consideration, including a bidding war between Japan’s SoftBank and Dish Network over the nation’s third-largest wireless provider, Sprint.

And later this year, the federal appeals court will rule on arguments made by Verizon Wireless and MetroPCS that the FCC doesn’t have the ability to regulate broadband Internet providers.

The agency has been under attack by phone giants who have argued that the FCC should not strap new rules to the fast-growing broadband market. But consumer groups have demanded more oversight of Internet service providers to prevent rising cable and wireless bills and a troubling lack of competition.

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Cecilia Kang is a staff writer covering the business of media and entertainment.
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