FCC nominee Wheeler backs away from past comments on AT&T/T-Mobile merger

Tom Wheeler, the former CTIA chief who President Obama nominated to head the FCC, largely steered clear of controversy at his confirmation hearing, winning praise from senators of both parties. However, Wheeler did say he would review mergers between carriers and other companies on the merits of the deals, and not on the basis of how approving them might or might not change regulations.

At the hearing before the Senate Commerce Committee, Wheeler backed away from past statements he made on his personal blog concerning AT&T's (NYSE:T) failed $39 billion bid to buy T-Mobile USA, now T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS). In his blog he said that the FCC might have been able to expand regulations to the entire wireless industry if it approved the deal with conditions that could have trickled down to other companies.

In response to questions during the hearing, Wheeler said that any merger review must consider the facts. "In a hypothetical musing, it is possible to do that," he said. But in a merger review, he said, "I am guided by precedent, the statute and the facts before me."

Wheeler said his business experience as the head of the CTIA and National Cable and Telecommunications Association would be an asset.

"What I have learned from my business experience will make me a better chairman, should the Senate confirm my nomination," Wheeler said, according to the Washington Post. He said he would focus on fostering competition and expanding broadband access, two of the oft-stated agenda items of his predecessor, Julius Genachowski.

"Competition is a power unto itself that must be encouraged," he said. "Competitive markets produce better outcomes than regulated or uncompetitive markets."

According to Broadcasting & Cable, Wheeler did not directly address how he would handle next year's incentive auctions of broadcast TV spectrum. Smaller carriers have argued for auction rules that would limit the amount of spectrum AT&T and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) would be able to acquire--AT&T and Verizon have, not surprisingly, argued against such rules. Wheeler only said that not all spectrum is created equal, and he did not indicate how that position would translate into policy for spectrum auctions.

Sen. Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.), who had pushed for Democratic Commissioner Jessica Rosenworcel to be nominated as chairwoman, praised Wheeler, as did many Republican senators, according to Politico.

For more:
- see this NYT article
- see this Washington Post article
- see this Reuters article
- see this Politico article
- see this Broadcasting & Cable article
- see this Ars Technica article

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